Williams County’s Home Rule charter is now about 15 years old, and overdue for an update. At the same time, the county is also seeking to move its County Treasurer/Recorder and Auditor to appointed rather than elected positions.
Williams County Director of Human Resources, Communication, and GIS Helen Askim said this is a trend being seen across the state, and it’s for several reasons. Not least of them is the ability to ensure that the qualifications and skills of those filling the roles are commensurate with the work each position entails.
For an elected position, an individual in general just needs to be at least 18 years old and an eligible resident. There’s no particular requirement for education or work experience.
“So the type of hiring process we use with all other positions to ensure taxpayers are getting the most knowledgeable and competent person to do the work we are paying them to do, that doesn’t happen with an elected position,” Askim said. “While we’ve been lucky and have capable people in the job now, there’s no guarantee that will happen down the road.”
While some voters may feel this is taking authority away from the voters, Askim acknowledged, the reality is the positions have rarely had an actual race.
“I think our forefathers thought there’d be thoughtful debate and vigorous discussion, so that voters could choose the best candidates based on philosophy for the job,” Askim saaid
But the auditor’s position has been unopposed for the last five terms, and the treasurer’s position was unopposed in four of the last five elections.
Meanwhile, five or so years ago, as both individuals holding the positions at the time were at the point of thinking about retiring at some point, there were a few conversations to encourage potential successors to run for the jobs. Those conversations, Askim said, were met with uncertainty and lack of interest.
“Statewide, people just don’t seek out these jobs,” Askim said. “And partly it’s because it’s an unusual employment situation. You are committed to a position for four years, which is not how people tend to think of work these days, and to stay there, you have to spend your own money to promote yourself every four years.”
Another benefit of the change would be to create more accountability for attendance and productivity.
“While we haven’t had this problem, we have seen counterparts have issues where the elected officials just don’t come to work,” Askim said. “Counties have very little control over the work of elected officials. There’s no requirement for attendance or productivity. Beyond gentle encouragement, there’s also no way to mandate that an elected auditor or treasurer recorder update how they work or how their department functions.”
Askim believes having the positions as appointed rather than elected will also lead to a more collaborative dynamic than can exist when the positions are elected and an individual must concern themselves with potentially campaigning to keep their jobs.
“Again we’ve been lucky, but maybe it’s a little fear of the unknown that makes us think this is a good time to ensure we have qualified thoughtful collaborative people in the role,” she said.
Other changes to the Home Rule Charter include aligning it with changes in state laws that govern which taxes counties can levy.
There’s also a section updating language for at-will employment, as well as standards that employees should meet to be considered for employment.
The requirement to put the budget in the county’s newspaper of record has also been eliminated. Instead, the county sends out a tax letter by Aug. 31 showing a summary of the estimated taxes and tax hearing dates.
Finally, the new charter will include a statement that any future changes to state law will supercede whatever is in the charter. That way it won’t require voter approval for routine updates.