[This Commentary originally appeared in the March 29, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
Every so often we hear reports on the evening news about the County Legislature or the County Executive doing this or that. Most of us just continue eating our dinner and wait for the sports. On the other hand, we listen intently to the network news whenever the anchor discusses matters from Washington D.C.
Why is it that we show less concern with the legislative body which has a more immediate impact on our everyday lives? How does one explain the public’s general disinterest of the county government? Most ironically, why do people often ignore those elected and appointed officials they have perhaps the greatest contact with (after town and village officials)?
Heck, don’t look at me. I just ask the questions. I don’t answer them. After all, I’m just a quiet country gardener, not a sophisticated sociologist. But I can offer an explanation of the general workings of the county government and the Monroe County Legislature in particular.
Our county government is patterned like our federal and state governments. Each has an executive, a legislature and a judicial branch. We elect the county executive in the same manner we elect a President and the Governor. We have a variety of local justices; some we elect and others get appointed, but we don’t have a Supreme Court as state and federal governments do.
What is the Monroe County Legislature? The federal and state legislative bodies consist of a bicameral legislature. In Washington, we call them the House and the Senate. In Albany, we call them the Assembly and the Senate. Our founding fathers came upon the concept of the bicameral legislature to protect smaller states from being overcome by the populous states.
On the county level, we have only the County Legislature. All county legislators are elected. Since each represents roughly the same number of people, the County Legislature can be likened to the New York State Assembly or the U.S. House of Representatives. Our county has no equivalent to the Senate.
Many county legislators represent more than one town. Our own legislator – John Stanwix – represents portions or all of the towns of Mendon, Rush, Wheatland and Henrietta. Most of his constituents reside in Mendon.
According to the Rules of the Monroe County Legislature, the legislature must have at least 16 regularly scheduled meetings a year. Sometimes, the president of the legislature can call a special meeting. In addition, there are many committee meetings. The legislature has nine standing committees which consist of at least five legislators each. These committees cover topics such as Transportation, Public Works, Public Safety, Recreation and Education and Planning and Economic Development. The committees work closely with the County Executive and the various department heads appointed by the County Executive.
All meetings – regularly scheduled, special and committee meetings – are open to the public. If, however, the president of the legislature calls a meeting into Executive Session, the public must leave the meeting.
How do laws get passed? The executive branch determines the direction which the county should move on various issues. It works together with the legislature to try to make sure any legislation which might be considered is consistent with that direction.
While the County Executive can propose laws, only the County Legislature can pass laws. (In fact, the County Executive’s main job focuses on managing the county.) Since many legislators have full-time (non-political) jobs, legislative aides are employed to complete much of the initial research work.
The legislators take this research and add their own thoughts to it. They then hammer out a proposed law within the relevant committee (most of the nitty gritty work occurs in the committee meetings, not the regularly scheduled meetings). The committee then proposes the bill in the full legislative body (at a regularly scheduled or special meeting) which ultimately gets voted upon.
How does the Legislature impact us? In terms of newsworthiness, the most apparent item on the agenda deals with the County Budget. While most county improvement projects don’t occur in Mendon, we are nonetheless affected by the budget.
For one thing, the budget determines what our county taxes should be. This matter probably causes the greatest controversy among county residents. Since the county traditionally provides services to towns and villages as well as the city of Rochester, the County Budget also determines how much money will be allocated to these other jurisdictions. Sometimes a town gets more money allocated to it. This allows the town to provide more services without increasing taxes. On the other hand, a town might also find its allocation cut. This results in the town either cutting back on services or increasing revenues (i.e., taxes).
The County Legislature is an actual working government that can have an impact on our everyday lives. If you wish to find out more information, you are encouraged to call your legislative offices.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]