Otsego County officials have deliberately slowed down the process of changing the structure of county government, but they are still working on a plan, and are focusing on one option for change: a county administrator.
“I think we made a decision that going slowly would lessen the shock,” said Rep. Michele Farwell, D-Butternuts, Morris, Pittsfield, at a committee meeting last week.
Changing the system of county government has been proposed for years, and it gained momentum after the 2017 election, when several candidates ran for or against the issue. At one point in 2018, officials expressed hope a new system could be in place by the end of the year, with a possible referendum on the change presented to voters in last November’s election. That plan stalled once the process began, however, and the pros and cons of the options became more concrete to members of the county’s intergovernmental affairs committee.
The IGA, which is chaired by Rep. Meg Kennedy, C-Hartwick, Milford, New Lisbon, sent out surveys last year to department heads to gauge reaction to possible changes, and began inviting officials from other upstate counties to talk about their systems of government. There was so much information — and so many opinions — to process, Kennedy started holding two IGA meetings each month, one to deal with normal business and one to work on county governance.
The committee met again on the issue Tuesday, March 23, at the county office building at 197 Main St. in Cooperstown, but the invited guest, a Montgomery County official, canceled a planned appearance. In his place, Kennedy invited two Otsego County department heads, Community Services Director Sue Matt and Office for the Aging Director Tamie MacDonald, to join an open conversation about the issue and tell the committee about their needs and concerns. They told the committee they are generally supportive of a county administrator, saying no one in county government is looking at big-picture issues.
“We are a $110 million company with no leader,” Matt said. “I have come to really appreciate good leadership. I see a real benefit in having someone who can look at the macro level.”
MacDonald said she has worked for good administrators and bad ones, and stressed to the committee members they needed to take the time to find the right person.
“I think what moves this in the right direction is having a good leader,” she said.
The committee has been drafting a list of job responsibilities for a county administrator, which would be an appointed position. In doing so, it has dismissed the idea of an elected county executive or county manager, positions which could require a change to the county charter before they could be elected or hired, respectively. The consensus that has formed during the process is there is no need for an executive position, but there is a need for an employee who would be onsite every day and help with long-term planning and achievements.
Otsego County has 14 elected representatives who work part time and are in Cooperstown a few times a month for meetings, but does not have an executive branch of government.
The two department heads were so positive about the potential change, committee members joked they needed to hear from someone who was not in favor of the idea. Although the sentiment made the committee members laugh, they affirmed it was information they wanted to solicit to design the best job description possible. They also suggested that many of the negatives about a county administrator have already been expressed, including the cost of a new position and a new “layer” of government, and the concern that the position could become politicized.
“It doesn’t even have to be someone who is negative,” said Rep. Pete Oberacker, R-Decatur, Maryland, Westford, Worcester. “If you like the current system, come in and tell us what you like about it.”
“The thing is, no one has said to us, ‘keep (county government) as it is and don’t do anything,’” Farwell said. “They say, ‘keep it as it is, but improve these things.’”
Kennedy said the more she researches other counties, the more unusual Otsego County’s system of government looks in comparison.
“You see a big list of all the county managers, and all the county administrators, and we are in a very small category of counties that have nothing,” she said.
The committee will continue listening to opinions and refining a job description in the coming months, but there is not yet a timetable to vote on an administrator position.
Still, at least for one meeting, the potential changes were viewed as a positive.
“We (department heads) talk with one another, but we are still siloed,” Matt said. “I would like to see us be innovative. I know it can be done, because I see it being done by my colleagues.
“I think everyone agrees we need to refresh ourselves,” she said. “It is exciting.”