Editorial: Democracy may be mess in El Dorado County, but it’s worth the effort

Published: Saturday, Jul. 5, 2014 - 12:00 am

When elected officials can’t get along with each other, the agencies and staff they are supposed to oversee suffer, as does the public.

Think about the government shutdown last October, when the hostilities between Democrats and Republicans caused all “nonessential” federal services to close for two weeks. The shutdown furloughed millions of employees, from meat inspectors to policy analysts, and locked the public out of federal facilities and national parks.

The overall cost to the U.S. economy, the White House estimates, was as high as $6 billion.

A working democracy often is messy – and costly to maintain.

An expensive mess is an apt description of El Dorado County government at the moment. Elected officials aren’t just not getting along; they are enemy combatants trying to throw each other out of office or, in at least one case, into jail.

The latest salvo came when grand jurors looked closely at how county government was running and didn’t like what they saw. Not at all.

The El Dorado County grand jury interviewed current and past elected officials and department heads, considered complaints from citizens and perused the county charter, among other things. The stories they heard were a litany of how elected officials misbehaved – interfering with the day-to-day operations of the county, subverting others’ authority and generally making county government a miserable place to work.

In a June report, dramatically titled “ The El Dorado County Charter: A Prescription for Dysfunction,” the grand jury specifically called out one elected official – Auditor-Controller Joe Harn – for being “defamatory, disrespectful and disparaging.” It also dinged the members of the Board of Supervisors for micromanaging and getting in the way of the woman the board hired to run county government.

Fair criticism, but then the grand jury report concluded with a surprise ending: a recommendation that the county reduce the number of elected officials by four. Specifically, the four elected positions that are not required by state law, including and especially the one held by Harn.

Well, that is one way to curb the bitter infighting in county government. Another would be a direct hit from a meteor on Placerville, the county seat. We don’t favor either option.

It seems clear from the report that the biggest beef is with Harn, as it doesn’t name the other three people who hold the jobs in question: Recorder-Clerk William E. Schultz who was elected in 1994; Treasurer-Tax Collector C.L. Raffety, a CPA who has been in this position for nearly 30 years; and Surveyor Rich Briner, who is two years into his first term. They see this as a power grab. We see it more as an act of exasperation, but it’s still unwelcome.

We are not opposed to the idea of collapsing some elected positions or making others appointed, notably that of the surveyor, the only such elected map keeper in the state. But it has to be for the right reasons, not to punish elected officials when they behave badly.

There’s a better way for voters to shed troublesome elected officials. It’s called an election. Harn, Schultz and Raffety won theirs last month.

The grand jury commission’s recommendation to ask voters to change the charter was chewed over by the county’s Charter Review Commission in late June. The commission will meet again at least once before the deadline to get something on the November ballot.

The commission should consider all ideas of making the county work more efficiently but should also be very wary of reducing the democracy available to voters in El Dorado County for political expediency.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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