County government is not necessarily a model of efficiency nor does it easily adapt to the changes that have occurred in the 125 years Washington has been a state.
But county government does have a very clear positive -- it forces the people who oversee county government to be accountable to the people. A three-member Board of Commissioners is elected to serve as the legislative body and perform executive functions such as overseeing the day-to-day operation of county government.
Many of the specific functions of county government are managed by elected officials who ultimately answer to the voters. The state constitution calls for the election of the sheriff, auditor, treasurer, prosecutor and county clerk.
Overseeing a government under this structure, as the county commissioners do, has always been a big job, but it is even bigger today as local governments seem to be given more responsibility with no added support from the state. Meanwhile, citizens are always in the commissioners' ears.
Given that, it is understandable commissioners are contemplating making an administrative change so they can hand off some of their executive duties to a county administrator who would serve as a "go-to" person for day-to-day operations.
This shift would be a mistake.
The commissioners need to be the "go-to" people for citizens and the county elected officials.
And, unlike City Council members who are given a $300 a month stipend for their role as policy setters, each commissioner is paid a full-time salary of $68,851 a year. The expectation is they do more than set policy; they also oversee the operation as executives.
The commissioners cannot be paid any less or more than the current salary unless they change the salary structure and then are re-elected. The constitution is clear that salaries cannot be changed in the middle of a term.
Commissioners are considering paying for a county administrator by using the salary of the employee who is retiring from his position overseeing human services-risk management ($73,855) and the salary of the part-time records officer ($30,714). The administrator would take on those duties plus budget and administrative duties.
It's unwise to fold human resources responsibilities into the administrator's job. The HR office must be a safe place where employees can go with their concerns about on-the-job issues. The county would be making itself more vulnerable to lawsuits if it does not have an HR person to address employee concerns in a professional manner.
The county is not in a financial position to hire more than one person for these various roles.
Until the financial picture for local governments improves, we believe the commissioners should put this plan on hold.
If more money were available, perhaps commissioners could restructure the Board of Commissioners' office to add an administrator to deal with the complexity of mandates, changing laws, etc..
But the commissioners need to hold the "go-to" positions as they answer directly to the voters.