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It makes no sense for voters to ‘hire’ people for administrative functions.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
This year’s elections have generated a low level of enthusiasm among voters. Nevertheless, thousands of Virginians will head to the polls on Election Day because they know the individuals elected will help to guide policy and make decisions that shape the future of their state and their communities.
But most voters would find it peculiar if they were also asked to weigh in on the best man or woman to run their municipality’s information technology department or the local library. Both are important functions that carry responsibility and require expertise, but there’s no clear reason why the duties should be turned over to a politician.
And yet similar jobs are entrusted to the political process, primarily out of tradition.
City and county voters across the state this year will elect constitutional officers, so called because the posts are listed in the state constitution. The category covers commissioners of the revenue, treasurers, circuit court clerks, sheriffs and commonwealth’s attorneys. Considerations for preserving or ending elections for constitutional offices would necessarily differ among those quite different jobs. Variations in function among localities would also need to be factored into those decisions. But as governments strive for greater efficiencies, it’s worthwhile to start with a look at the offices that handle purely administrative functions, i.e., the commissioner, treasurer and clerk.
Those jobs also happen to be the least understood by voters who are asked to “hire” the best applicant. Commissioners, for example, don’t set property tax rates. City councils and county supervisors make those decisions. In Roanoke, the commissioner doesn’t assess real estate, either. The city maintains a separate department to handle that duty. Instead, the commissioner maintains tax records and makes sure property taxes on vehicles are assessed properly. The treasurer handles money coming into the city, while the director of finance — a member of the city staff — oversees money going out to pay for services and operations.
Beyond the potential for needless duplication, there’s also no clear reason why a Democrat or a Republican is more qualified to manage a government office, even though most voters will know candidates’ political affiliations but not their educational and work histories.
Constitutional officers were the lynchpins of Harry Byrd Sr.’s political organization, but that machine has long ago expired.
We recognize that we have raised an issue that will unite candidates for constitutional office in disagreement. We also recognize that change cannot come this year, and is unlikely to occur for many years. But voters who value streamlined government operations should ponder whether better alternatives exist as they cast their ballots this fall.
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