Our recent discussion of the primary elections and an incidental comment by Steve Haner were the catalysts to get me to develop a posting that I had been mulling over for awhile. The system of elected administrative officers established in the Virginia Constitution for local governments needs to be abolished.
These officers, called constitutional officers for obvious reasons, and their primary responsibilities, are:
- Circuit court clerk—responsible for the administration of the circuit courts: preparing trial transcripts, handling jury lists, preparing orders, etc. The office is also the depository of the locality’s land records (deeds, liens, etc.) and wills.
- Sheriff—responsible for law enforcement in many localities, administration of the jail, provision of courtroom security, and service of legal processes.
- Commonwealth’s Attorney—chief criminal prosecutor.
- Commissioner of the Revenue—property assessor and processor of income tax returns
- Treasurer—collects tax and other state and local revenue and deposits funds into appropriate accounts; invests funds of local government
All officers are elected for four-year terms, except the clerk, who has an eight-year term. The Constitution requires that each city and county have these officers, although it also provides that localities can share officers and that localities can abolish the offices, if approved by referendum.
The constitutional officers have a long history in the Commonwealth. Some of them date to Colonial times. The current structure was established in the 1902 Constitution and subsequent amendments and continued without substantive change in the most recent Constitution (1970). Their basic function was to administer state functions (judicial system, tax collections, etc.) at the local level. In some cases, they administered local functions as well. In many counties, the clerk of the circuit court also served as the clerk of the board of supervisors, thereby functioning as an ad hoc county administrator. As late as the mid-1980’s, the clerk in at least two rural counties served in this dual capacity.
In addition to their administrative functions, the constitutional officers also had a political function. During a large part of the 20th century, they were an essential component of the Byrd Machine. Being elected officials, they had their constituencies that they could marshal in support of the Machine. They were Byrd’s eyes and ears in each locality. They were the core of the courthouse politics that dominated the era.
In the beginning, most, if not all, of the funding of the constitutional officers came from the state. The state appropriations for the offices were administered by a state agency, the Compensation Board. The budget of each constitutional office had to be approved by the Compensation Board. With his lieutenants in charge of the Compensation Board, Byrd was in a position to ensure loyalty among the locally elected officials. If any constitutional officer defied Byrd or otherwise strayed from the party line, his budget was likely to be adversely affected.
Not only has the constitutional officer system outlived its usefulness, it now is a hindrance to better local government. Each county, even the most rural ones, has a professional manager and staff to administer the affairs of the county and the policies of its board of supervisors. However, constitutional officers, who are not answerable to the country administrator or Board of Supervisors, have responsibility for vital county functions such as law enforcement, tax assessment, and general fiscal matters. Those officers may or may not agree with the policies of the Board of Supervisors.
It is not enough to say that these officials are responsible to the voters. In many cases, the voters are not even aware of the offices and the identity of the elected official. More importantly, several of these offices are largely ministerial in nature and should not be involved in the political process. As it now stands, anyone, no matter how qualified, can run for these offices. A lawyer who has never argued a case in court can run for Commonwealth’s attorney. Someone with no fiscal background can run for treasurer. And so on. Given the nature of elections, such unqualified persons could be elected.
It needs to be noted that these criticisms are less applicable for most cities and some counties. In their charters, most cities have a director of finance (or a position with a similar title), rather than the elected commissioner of the revenue and treasurer. The same is true of those counties, such as Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, and Henrico, which have adopted one of the optional forms of government. Similarly, for cities and urban counties, an appointed chief of police is responsible for law enforcement, rather than the sheriff.
One of my former managers had a policy, applicable to him regarding his boss and to us in relation to him: Don’t bring a problem without also bringing a solution. I always thought that was good advice. In a followup post, I will pose some solutions to the problem I have presented here.There are currently no comments highlighted.