Without question, 2018 is shaping up to be a historical year in Chemung County. With more than thirty people running for seats in the legislature, and four candidates for county executive, our community will have a unique opportunity to fully evaluate how local government functions, and consider whether there are new and better approaches for us to undertake.
Yet, envisioning what the future might hold requires we first have at least a cursory understanding of how our system developed.
Prior to 1974, Chemung County was governed by a board of supervisors comprised of town supervisors and other municipal leaders. The board members’ votes were weighted on the basis of each municipality’s population in an attempt to allow all county residents to have as fair and equal representation as possible.
According to Tri-Counties Genealogy, the first board of supervisors consisted of Samuel Minier, of Big Flats; Timothy Wheat, of Catlin; Jacob Swartwood of Cayuta; John G. Henry of Catharine; Green Bennitt of Dix; John W. Wisner of Elmira; Albert A. Beckwith, of Southport; Asahel Hulett of Veteran, with John Wisner of Elmira serving as chairman.
Photograph of the 1920 Board of Supervisors. Image from the Chemung County Historical Society.
On January 1, 1974, Chemung County residents voted to adopt a county charter, replacing the board of supervisors with a county executive and a 15-seat legislature. In doing so, Chemung County became one of 17 (out of 62) counties in New York to operate under a charter. Two additional counties subsequently adopted charters, bringing the total number of “charter counties” to 19.
Table from New York’s Division of Local Government Services.
As our current form of government is still in a relative state of infancy, we have just begun to test the boundaries of what the charter allows for in terms of local governance.
At the outset, only a small number of people have served in the executive and legislative branches due to our lack of term limits and very little turnover in these positions. Indeed, as shown below, the position of county executive has only been held by five individuals since it was created.
And, in the 7th District where I live and am running to serve as legislator, the legislative seat has been held by one man and his son from the time the legislature was created in 1974. In other words, no one outside of a single family has ever represented the 7th district in the legislature.
Exploring what Chemung County can do to bring about positive change under our current charter is, however, about much more than who sits in the elected seats. The charter itself is riddled with untapped potential, specifically as it relates to the legislature. Indeed, it says the legislature – not any other branch of local government – shall be the policy-determining body of the county.
The charter further provides that the legislature has the power to:
[M]ake such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary
or material to such study or inquiry.
Understanding where we came from is a critical part of determining where we are headed. When our community decided to adopt the charter in 1974, it deliberately included provisions to allow for a strong, proactive legislative body to act as a balance and check on the executive branch.
There are many smart, dedicated people who desire the opportunity and honor to serve on the legislature. It would be great to see what a fully utilized legislative branch could do toward helping to restore our community.
Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature