Council Candidates on Const. Offices

Brent Finnegan -- October 17th, 2008

This is part on the ongoing Q&A series with City Council candidates. We’ll be emailing candidates questions and posting answers periodically throughout the month of October. All responses are listed unedited, in the order in which they were received.

Is it appropriate to consider eliminating Constitutional Offices in the City? If so, what authority does Council have to eliminate those offices and what impact will it have?

Dave Wiens: I am not in favor of eliminating our Constitutional offices. I feel we need the oversight these office provide. Also, eliminating the office would mean the loss of state revenue, something the city certainly cannot afford at this time.
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Roger Baker: Only if Council is petitioned to do so. Council could request a charter change. The cost of the offices eliminated would have to be picked up by the city.
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Charles Chenault: It is appropriate if the voters in the city want to do it – Council does not have the authority to do this on its own. It is not something I would initiate on my own. My personal belief is that the elimination of offices would cost the city financially through the loss of reimbursing state revenue. I am not sure I see an increasing level of efficiencies either.
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Richard Baugh: Two of the pillars of my campaign are the need for more open government, especially to encourage citizen input; and to put the community first in all decision making, not just the interests of the people in the community who tend to be like me. That being the case, I would feel awfully silly saying that I do not think it would be “appropriate to consider” this or any other issue that might benefit the public.

Of course the process for doing this is driven by citizen petitions, certified by the Circuit Court, which then make this a referendum matter placed on the ballot at the next general election for consideration by the voters, which still needs to then be approved by the General Assembly. Moreover, state law is clear that this is pretty much the only way to eliminate these offices. So no, this would not seem to be a matter decided by Council.

As to the impact, my personal opinion is that this warrants closer study. It rolls easily off of the tongue to say that doing this will increase efficiency and lower costs. I would want to see some actual evidence that this will be the case. If we have to hire the same people to do the same work, all we really may be doing is changing their boss. And we would be changing their boss from someone directly elected by the people to someone answerable to a city department head, who is answerable to the City Manager, who is answerable to City Council, who are directly elected by the people. There is the additional issue that we would be changing supervisory control over this function from a position paid by the state to one paid by Harrisonburg directly. This makes it even more important that we be sure there will be a net saving to the community, before we make changes based on unconfirmed assumptions.

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Tracy Evans: It is absolutely appropriate to consider eliminating Constitutional Offices in the City. Specifically, we should eliminate the constitutional offices of Treasurer and Commissioner of Revenue, which I proposed to do months ago. City Council does not have the ultimate authority to eliminate these offices, but the leadership of city council can play an important role in initiating the petition to get the required referendum to be placed on the next election day ballot. The residents of the City will then have the opportunity to vote for or against this plan. If the majority of the city votes for the referendum, and I believe they will, then the City must request the General Assembly’s approval to amend our City charter. I have already spoken to several Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly and they have assured me that the voters’ wishes will be approved.

The impact that eliminating these offices will have on the City is that it will reduce the size of government, make our local government more streamlined and efficient, and allow us to spend some of the money that we currently spend on the salaries for Treasurer and Commissioner of Revenue on other needs that the City has. The preservation of the money currently being paid to the Treasurer and Commissioner of Revenue will be a top priority of my interactions with the state legislature as a member of City Council, thus freeing up the funds we are currently spending for duplicative services and making these funds available for other City needs.
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Kai Degner: Ensuring fiscal accountability and responsibility should be the ultimate objective in any action and decision related to the treasurer’s office (the constitutional office sparking this inquiry). Calling for elimination of these offices without a full exploration of the impact is short-sighted and premature.

More often than not, the treasurer’s office has served well the constituents of Harrisonburg. I caution against making a drastic, reactionary change based on a highly-publicized poor decision by one person filling that role. The implication of any such changes need to first be fully explored, including first and foremost the impact on how taxpayer money is thoughtfully managed. I am far from presuming such a change is in the best interest of Harrisonburg residents without a serious analysis of the impacts.

It may seem odd that the city manager is accountable to the city council, while the person looking over the funds is not. However, checks and balances are a fundamental principle that ensures fiscal accountability. It is prudent to have the person overseeing funds be independent and objective in order to remove the possibility of having that person feel politically pressured to do anything other than properly account for funds.
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We have not yet received responses to this question from Rodney Eagle or J.M. Snell. We will add their responses as we receive them. A total of eight candidates (including two incumbents) are running for three available seats on City Council.

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3 Responses to “Council Candidates on Const. Offices”

  1. finnegan says:

    In case you’re wondering what a Constitutional office is, they are the elected positions in Harrisonburg not under the authority of City Council. There are a couple of DNR articles that might fill in a little background to the question.

  2. finnegan says:

    Added Tracy Evans’s response.

  3. Bill Ney says:

    It is appropriate for the City Council to take up this proposal, if the citizens petition them to do so. But I hope the citizens would know what they are asking for. These Constitutional Offices were established to offer the communities a system of “Checks & Balances” The Commissioner of Revenue sets the tax appraisal value of property. The City Council sets the tax rate and the City Treasurer collects all fees.

    With the elimination of these offices, one person would be responsible for all these activities. The only oversight would be from the City Manager and the City Council. With the current system we have three separate offices, all elected by the citizens, providing their services. The Financial Officer of Harrisonburg could be replaced after each City Council election if three council members make that decision.

    The final and main reason not to consider this proposal is that the State of Virginia pays over 80% of the salaries of the Treasurer and Commissioner of Revenue and their staffs. That sum would cost Harrisonburg about $400,000.00 per year.

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