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RAMSHACKLE COUNTY GOVERNMENT
paper from him, and make a very much better ting all the interest it should on his balances living from it. The publisher can very well of $10,000,000 (little details like this not afford to make the county boss a present of being made public), he refused. They tried a nice block of stock or to run free of charge to find out what they could do about it, and the advertisement of the boss's private busi- ended up by publishing a pamphlet. When ness if he gets this public advertising.
the treasurer's term finally expired, they So it comes about that the first practical easily obtained signed and detailed promises steps toward the reform of county politics of reforms from all the thirteen new candimust usually take the shape of an attempt to dates for this post. The winner, the present buy the control of a newspaper and run it incumbent, was especially conciliatory. His uncontaminated by public advertising patron- zeal seems to have petered out, for he fought age—a highly precarious business venture. off a proposed law to make him keep his
pledge by getting it amended so as not to BEHIND THE CENSORSHIP
take effect until after his term expires in Now let us lift a corner of this blanket of 1918, and he did not let the public into his silence that covers county government and precious secret at the end of 1915. see what we find. The Comptroller of the In 1910 the State examiners went through State of New York has power to send exam- the affairs of a certain county in the Hudson iners to any county to investigate and report River district, New York, and reported that upon its financial methods. The law was a the county treasurer was keeping certain fees dead letter until Mr. Glynn, afterwards Gov- that belonged to the county. When they ernor, became Comptroller and secured an came around again in 1914, they found that appropriation for the salaries of a few exam- their 1910 report had not disturbed anybody iners. They had no difficulty in finding wan- sufficiently to prevent several thousand dolton use of the taxpayers' money in nearly lars more from going the same way. every county, not with criminal intent, to be In one such case in another county the sure, but in a spirit of simple recklessness. supervisors loyally voted to the incriminated They found irregularities in every county. officer his regular salary of $10,000 “ plus They have now covered fifty-seven of them, such sums as he may have illegally taken in and the head of the staff says: “ In not a the past." single county examined has there been found Which shows what you can do about it if compliance with every provision of law.”'
you try! In Broome County the county boss had so manipulated things that he was able to
ANTIQUATED STANDARDS draw upon the county's funds for his private The work of the county has become expert benefit whenever he pleased, and he pleased work. In the simple days of our grandrather often. The unexpected visit of the fathers a man of common horse sense could Comptroller's examiners caught him with a run an almshouse or a county jail or a taxlarge shortage and he committed suicide. collector's office or build a road, and easily The impression which the event made upon achieve the primitive standards of those times. the people of Broome County was probably Nowadays the proper care of the unfortuquite fairly expressed by his successor in nates in an almshouse, for instance, is a office, who stood before a committee of the highly specialized and technical profession. Constitutional Convention not long after and Men and women train for such duties in asserted that there was no popular unrest in special schools and make it their life-work. Broome nor any desire to change the system ! Even such trained social workers will find an
Graft in county government is just as old- almshouse full of unsolved human problems fashioned as county government itself, just requiring the most elaborate study, though the as much behind the times, just as lacking in honest village merchant who takes for a few modern refinement. When you enter county years the position of superintendent of the politics, you step back into the days of Tweed. poor would not recognize the existence of If you protest at things you find, you get the any problems at all. The untrained visitor same answer, What are you going to do to an almshouse sees a clean and airy building about it?" And there isn't much you can do. containing a varied assortment of unfortunate
When a committee of citizens ventured to humanity who are being well fed and kindly ask the treasurer of Cook County, Illinois, treated, and he goes away with a feeling that to let them see whether the county was get- the county administration is excellent. The
social worker, however, observes epileptics into the treasury, but there is no assurance without scientific care, undetected cases of that the plan would work. Hudson County, feeble-mindedness, inebriates and drug vic- New Jersey, tried that, and, instead of derivtims who are not being trained out of their ing a nice revenue from the sheriff's office, habits, victims of tuberculosis without the the county acquired an annual deficit, for special system of treatment which their cases patronage multiplied and thrift declined when require, sufferers from chronic diseases, the fruits of economy were no longer the such as heart cases, rheumatism, cancer, and sheriff's private perquisites. the more sinister ills, cripples who could be taught a trade if there were anybody avail
COUNTY BOUNDARIES able who knew how to teach them, and aged Cities change their boundaries incessantly poor whose relatives have never been ade- to keep in correct adjustment with shifts of quately looked up, the system for admissions population, but county boundaries remain being so lax that practically the county sup- immutable as they were a hundred years ago, ports any one who applies.
except when one county is divided into two All this is not the fault of the superin- in order to make an extra set of jobs. That tendent of the poor ; it is the reasonable is the way Bronx County was erected within result of a ramshackle system of govern- the boundaries of the County of New York. ment. The superintendent is elective; that Bronx set up in business separately at a new guarantees that he will not be an expert, expense of $700,000 a year, but the expenses but a local and transient amateur. He is of the remaining half of the county have conforbidden to use his common sense by the tinued undiminished. Legislature, which, in its complicated poor The most offhand study of the county map law, provides written rules for every con- in any State will disclose many misfits. The tigency, with results that may often be county seat is often remote from the center pathetic or ludicrous. Admissions to the of the county, perhaps down in one corner. almshouse are governed by the easy personal Often it is in a little village far from the main standards of a dozen to ten dozen local offi- routes of modern transportation. Sometimes cers scattered around the county, the jus the county will straddle a mountain range or tices of the peace and the overseers of the will in other ways attempt to ignore topogpoor, who have authority to commit to the raphy. In numberless cases the counties almshouse. The money to operate the alms- are too small in size or in population to be house properly must be solicited from the economical and could save a large part of Board of Supervisors, who, if they choose to their annual expenses by consolidation. Yet make offhand slashes in the requested appro- it never seems to occur to anybody to work priation, take no responsibility for the results. for a readjustment and modernization of
county geography. AMATEUR PENOLOGY Or take the sheriff's office. Did you ever
MISFIT UNIFORMITY hear of a sheriff who was a penologist ? So The same spirit of complacent stagnation the typical county jail is a horror, a school for permits the inflexible framework of governcrime and unnatural sexual vices where men ment which took its present shape amid the who are innocent, or at least not vicious, simple conditions of seventy years ago to cannot possibly remain without becoming remain uniform for all kinds and shapes of contaminated or callous to things that at the counties, regardless of differing conditions. beginning of their incarceration they find re- One great county has a trifling population volting. At Utica a recent scandal brought scattered over an immense territory, another the sheriff's office into the courts, where it was county may consist of a compact group of learned that the jail had seen scenes of open little villages, a third will be co-extensive with debauchery with women prisoners, officers of a city government, while another is half metthe jail, and friends of the latter from outside. ropolitan and half rural, and the framework
The sheriff is commonly compensated by of county government is identical for all of fees. This still survives even in New York them. County, where the fees net the sheriff $60,000 Any form of organization which attempts a year in addition to the comfortable salary to be a common denominator for so many of $12,000. Efforts are made from time to different types of counties ought to be primtime to amend the law and steer these fees itively simple, a mere skeleton, and a model
RAMSHACKLE COUNTY GOVERNMENT
so far as it goes. But the framework of but the point is that when under the present county government as laid down in the writ- system two branches of the county governten law is no skeleton. A diagram of it looks ment disagree, this ridiculous spectacle of the like a ball of yarn after the cat has got through State Legislature solemnly enacting a law with it.
settling the salary of the cook of a certain In its form of organization the typical county jail exhibits the typical method of county is ideally bad. It is almost completely relief. This endless legislative tinkering, even disjointed. Each officer is independent of all if it were always sincerely done, serves its the rest, standing on his own separate pedestal temporary purpose, remains unrepealed and of popular election with a full rignt to tell all forgotten on the statute-books, and becomes the other county officers to go to glory. It is a permanent nuisance. The usual remedy, if like an automobile with a separate motor at a county officer fails to come up to these every wheel, each going its own gait.
written requirements, is some kind of a manNominally the board of supervisors is at damus proceedings or action by the district the head of the county because it holds the attorney against the county officer or his purse-strings; but the power of the purse is bondsman. only partial, inasmuch as a multitude of laws A county official is lucky if he has a really fastens various charges upon the county and clear idea of what his own duties are, The sets the salaries of a great many of its sub- much patched and often contradictory statordinate officers. Practically the board's only utes which are supposed to govern his adpower consists of an ability to hamper the ministrative procedure in detail are scattered other elective officials by making restricted ap- through from three to twenty different gen propriations. It has no other real power to eral laws. As a rule he is no lawyer, and if supervise them or to compel them to expend he undertook the research his term might the appropriations with care and discretion. end before he was ready for business. Ac
Even if they had the power, the board of cordingly tradition becomes the guiding star supervisors is not properly organized or of every county officer, for no matter how equipped to handle such a task.
a ning of a county is a complex administrative from precedent in the interests of efficiency, problem, requiring incessant and active super- he is liable to find that he is violating some vision ; but the supervisors meet only at stated unheard-of statute. Many of the laws are intervals, quarterly or monthly, for instance, out of date, anyway, and county officials, and are in no position to keep continuous revolting at the senseless red tape, often disoversight over affairs. Frequently the board regard them for the sake of the taxpayers. is too large to be anything but a debating That is why every student of county governsociety, anyway.
ment soon finds that the laws in the library
give him an incorrect idea of what county PATCHWORK LEGISLATION
officials are doing. So the State Legislature steps in, and every To turn back to Westchester County time one county official is impolite to some again, which is quoted so often here because other county official somebody takes the train it is the most thoroughly explored county to the capital and a new law is passed to government in the United States : the offirectify the difficulty. In effect these inter- cials of the County Research Bureau, after minable minute memoranda, called laws, lay working for six years in intimate touch with down the office rules of county government county problems, declare that their county and attempt to decree fraternal love among could be run better for less than half the county officers. Witness the plea, made on present cost and with half the number of behalf of the sheriff of Rensselaer County,
But they freely concede that they exhibited in the title of the following bill, which would not care to undertake it without radpassed the New York Legislature of 1915 : ical revision of the laws and governmental
An Act providing for the appointment by the organization. sheriff of Rensselaer County, of an under sheriff, jailers, watchman, matron, cooks, janitors, OBSCURITY AND THE LONG BALLOT process servers, firemen, and court officers, and
can peer into the cobwebs of for their compensation and duties.
county government without developing the Perhaps the supervisors had been stingy, deepest sympathy for the many conscientious perhaps the sheriff's ideas were extravagant, and unappreciated public servants who are
trying to operate the present antiquated mechanism. The same obscurity which protects the crook also prevents good work from being rewarded. Theoretically the public official who does his duty will be promptly supported by public opinion, but the fact is that the people of the county know very little about his official conduct, and if he comes in conflict with some other officer, the people, who constitute his only court of appeal, are in no position to determine the merits of the controversy. There are so many office holders to watch that public opinion is baffled and ends by keeping track of almost none of them. The voter has four National officers to select, a dozen State and judicial officers, and a string of township and village or city officials, anywhere from thirty to a hundred altogether, to be elected in the course of a four-year cycle. What chance has this or that county officer to get into the spotlight where his good deeds may be appreciated ? He is only one of from two hundred to fourteen hundred office holders who are elective in the county. He is lost in the shuffle. The people of the county may happen to be familiar with his personality-in rural counties they often are—but there still remains the impossible task for them to keep track of his official activities and appraise his work, which, of course, is largely technical. The county clerk in New York, for example, is elected. It is therefore presumably the duty of the people, and of no one else, to see that he performs his duty under the penal law, banking law, lien law, executive law, tax law, fish, forest, and game law, prison law, liquor tax law, domestic relations law, partnership law, public officers' law, general business law, judiciary law, real property law, legislative law, town law, decedent estate law, and county law !
science-there is such a thing, but no true American will respect it-teaches that no technical office should be elective ; none, in fact, except truly representative offices where the function is to interpret public opinion. Members of the Legislature, Congressmen, aldermen, and county supervisors (or whatever you call them in your State) should be amateurs, spokesmen for the people, samples of the ignorance as well as of the enlightenment of the voters, and from them all the others, the experts, should take their orders.
That is the pathway toward efficiency and economy.
But it is also the pathway toward the bigger goal of a real democracy that will
democ." Bossism is not democracy. Ring rule is not democracy. Government by a ruling class called “the politicians ” is not democracy. And county government is not democracy-it doesn't "democ."
County government, on the contrary, is ideally designed to resist popular control. One way of concealing a public officer from effective public scrutiny is to make his office so small that it will inevitably fail to command public attention. A second way is to have so many elective officers that the public cannot possibly keep track of them all. A third way to baffle the public is to divide the responsibility, so that each public officer under attack can excuse himself on the ground that the necessary co-operation of some other officer was lacking. County · government involves the liberal use of all three of these expedients; and so, in spite of its superficial aspect, the county is the least democratic of all our political divisions.
Indeed, it is a standing menace to democracy. The unorganized citizenry cannot operate the present complex, rusty instrument. By always requiring a greater amount of popular participation in government than the citizens are willing to furnish, it removes itself beyond the grip of the rank-and-file voters and lapses into the hands of the political machines. If the citizens of a given county want to displace the dominant political machine, they can do so only by the expedient of building up another machine to supplant it, and the new machine, like the old one, will continue to be the real guiding force in county affairs, selecting the public officers and telling them what to do. In fact, the private political machine, simple, well unified, and efficient, but powerless to resist the intrusion of corrupt men, has often been the one element of strength to the official county government by compelling
VIOLATES SHORT BALLOT PRINCIPLES County officers, except the governing board, are not in any proper sense representative officers, and democracy gains nothiing by keeping them in politics. There is no legitimate Republican way or Socialist way or Progressive way of being county clerk or superintendent of highways. A member of New York's recent Constitutional Convention argued that when the people elected a Republican to build the roads they thereby ordered all the jobs to be transferred to Republicans, making the roads all good Republican roads. But he was mistaken. Political
RAMSHACKLE COUNTY GOVERNMENT
some degree of harmony among the latter's an organism that will be an effective and disorganized elements.
California took a hopeful step three years THE PROSPECT OF PROGRESS
ago by allowing its counties to draw up charCounty reform is in its infancy. There is ters of their own just as the cities did. Three no State in the Union which has worked out counties have taken advantage of the oppora good system. The embryo County Gov- tunity, Los Angeles in particular making the ernment Association of New York State is notable improvement of getting thirteen offithe only such association in the country. cers off the elective list, and making local There is no one who is prepared to advance politics notably simpler and more popularly a plan for a model county government. understandable. The People's Power League
A satisfactory solution of the many prob- in Oregon, authors of the initiative and lems can be worked out only by a steady referendum in this country, have a scheme process of evolution, under conditions that for mowing down their county jungle and give scope for experiment, free from need- substituting simplicity and directness by erectless Constitutional restrictions. The counties ing a small elective commission which will must be free to advance individually and not hire a county manager, who in turn will in perpetual lockstep. Let the more progres- appoint everybody else except the judge sive counties feel their way cautiously forward, (who remains elective) and the prosecuting to be followed by the others when the value of attorney (whom the Governor is to appoint). a given step is clearly proved by experience. That line of progress is also indicated by the
The path of progress will surely be in the experience of cities in which the twin principles general direction of unification and simplifi. of the short ballot and the unification of cation. Some of the elective officers must powers have fructified in the commissionbe transferred to the appointive list, and those manager plan of government. There are who remain elective must be built up in now thirty-six cities operating under that plan, power, influence, and conspicuousness until and there will be hundreds within the next they command the discriminating attention of
The plan requires modification the electorate. The ballot must not continue to fit it to counties, and there are difficult to be too long to remember, but must be constitutional obstacles, but one of these days shortened sufficiently to come within the some county will make a start. complete oversight of the voters. Responsi- County government is the uttermost citadel bility must be clearly located. The county of our political overlords, the one base of must be given a definite head. The limbs supplies from which they are never ousted. and the body must be joined together and But its very rottenness as an institution guar put under the easy control of a brain. Not antees that when it once starts to crumble it otherwise can the people of a county secure will go swiftly!