Elections versus appointments of local county officials

Popular election of most government officials is an important feature of American democracy. The merits of electing versus appointing particular officials, especially on a localized level, are widely debated. Some argue that holding elections for those in non-representational positions such as County Clerk or Treasurer needlessly politicizes a position and deprioritizes the required quantitative skills. Others point to the need for transparency, contending that the appointment of office-holders by those within the government encourages bureaucratic cronyism. Elections can ensure that officials are attuned to the general population’s concerns and desires.

A county position that illustrates this debate is the position of County Auditor. California is one of the fifteen states that elect county auditors. Many counties have a history of side-stepping the election process: the auditor will resign midway through his or her term and then someone within the county government, often the resigning auditor or the Board of Supervisors, will appoint someone else to take the previous auditor’s place until the next election. This process primes the newly-appointed auditor for success in the next election, virtually guaranteeing him or her the position for the next several years.

This became an issue in 2000 in Ventura County when Christine L. Cohen, current auditor of Ventura County, was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to replace Auditor-Controller Mahon halfway through his term. The LA Times lists Cohen as the third assistant auditor-controller to succeed the chief midway through his or her term. While four of the five board members approved Cohen’s appointment, Supervisor Schillo objected, saying that “appointing an auditor is just too cozy”. Steven Maulhardt, who lost in the 1998 Ventura County Auditor-Controller election, agreed and called for the supervisors to stop “creating a dynasty”.

Many other California county officials in the last ten years were also appointed during their predecessor’s term, including Ventura County’s Clerk Mark Lunn, Los Angeles County’s Clerk Dean Logan, and San Diego County’s Sheriff William Gore. Thus, though the appointment versus election debate can extend to county positions besides auditor, some of the considerations remain the same: the availability of candidates, the degree to which competitiveness facilitates the position’s efficacy, and the accountability that re-election may add to a position.

So who is responsible for taking these considerations into account and making the decision to appoint officials instead of holding special elections? The County Board of Supervisors, which the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) describes as the legislative and executive authority of the county, with some added quasi-judicial authority. In addition, CSAC says that the “powers of a county can only be exercised by the Board of Supervisors or through officers acting under the authority of the Board or authority conferred by law.” This amounts to considerable authority and discretion vested in the Board of Supervisors, including the decision of the election or appointment of most county officials. It remains to be seen whether California counties will continue to grapple with the issue of appointing officials as exemplified in Ventura County’s auditor “dynasty.” In any case, a significant change to the system will necessitate either the Board of Supervisor’s co-operation or a restructuring of the Board of Supervisor’s county powers – both of which seem unlikely to change drastically in the near future.

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