The future of constitutional offices in Staunton

Story by Chris Graham

Issues in Staunton involving the independently elected treasurer and commissioner of the revenue offices and City Hall have been making the news headlines for going on two years now – with the focal points being the delays in the implementation of a new financial-management software system and the delineation of duties between the treasurer office and the city finance office, which answers to the city manager and ultimately to city council.

Several city-council members, frustrated with the lack of progress with regard to the software system and the decision of treasurer Elnora Hazlett to sue the city over a council move earlier this year that transferred several of her oversight powers to the finance department, openly supported the challengers to Hazlett and revenue commissioner Ray Ergenbright in the Nov. 8 city elections.

Hazlett and Ergenbright – both defeated in their bids for re-election to their respective constitutional offices – responded by claiming that the council members in question had ulterior motives.

“I think they did this, quite clearly, to get a weak people on board so that they could lay the groundwork for eliminating the two offices,” Ergenbright told The Augusta Free Press.

There had been rumblings that city leaders might indeed have been leaning in that direction – Councilwoman Jean Donovan famously referred to the practice of electing treasurers and commissioners of revenue “archaic” during a city-council discussion last year.

Donovan sounds like she still needs some convincing that electing people to head those offices is the right way to go.

“I think the burden is on the other side to say what they offer in terms of checks and balances that cannot be offered through current auditing practices,” Donovan told the AFP.

“Companies can’t function indefinitely if they’re not having adequate accountability,” Donovan said. “All of the private sector operates under the control of a chief finance officer who reports to the CEO who reports to the board of directors. And here we’re saying, oh, no, we have our separate finance officers, the treasurer and the commissioner of revenue, and they don’t report to anybody.

“Supposedly they report to the public. But do they report monthly or biweekly or weekly like council does and say, this is what is going on, this is what we’re doing now, these are problems we’re having? Council has a ton of accountability. What does the treasurer and commissioner of revenue have to do? How does the public have any way of knowing?”

Questions with respect to the need for independently elected treasurer and revenue commissioners come up with some frequency, said Bob de Voursney, a professor of government and public policy at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

“The goal of professionalizing the operation is a legitimate aspiration. But there are two sides to this. One can say, for example, that if the current constitutional officers are not professional, then presumably they can be replaced by the voters,” de Voursney told the AFP.

De Voursney said the comparisons to the private sector offered by Donovan are off the mark because “government is not supposed to be run like a business.”

“Government is supposed to be representative of the people. That’s one argument. The second is that I haven’t seen that the contention that professionals are more efficient has been demonstrated as of yet,” de Voursney said.

“It may be that some jurisdictions see improvements in operating efficiencies as a result of having a director of finance take care of fiscal matters as opposed to dividing those duties up among a treasurer and commissioner of revenue. But across the 95 counties and 39 cities in the Commonwealth, that isn’t the case across the board,” de Voursney said.

Mayor John Avoli said he doesn’t think that anybody would oppose at least looking at ways to streamline government by subsuming fiscal matters under one office.

“I’d like to see some research on it and some dialogue associated with it,” Avoli told the AFP.

Avoli also wonders why it is out of turn to demand that the people who are in charge of financial matters have the proper training and qualifications to be involved in such work.

“If you look at the qualifications for these offices, much like being a member of city council, I guess, is that you need to be a registered voter, and you put your name on the ballot, and if you get enough votes, you’re elected to these positions. It’s kind of an interesting thing that, for example, with a sheriff, you can be elected sheriff without having any background at all in law enforcement,” Avoli said.

Of note here is that the two people tapped to succeed Hazlett and Ergenbright – treasurer-elect Rick Johnson and commissioner of the revenue-elect Maggie Ragon – both support maintaining the status quo with the constitutional-office setup.

“If you look at constitutional offices, they give everyone, every taxpayer, the ability to say yes or no to how they’re being treated. That direct voice is invaluable to the taxpayer,” Johnson told the AFP.

“You definitely want to keep people accountable. And the constitutional-officer form of government does that,” Johnson said.

“If in fact we feel that we have someone in this office who is truly representing us and doing the job that they should be doing, then we don’t have any opposition to it,” Ragon told the AFP.

“Other communities have made decisions to absorb those positions into their local finance department. I would imagine that it may have been a result of issues with those particular offices,” Ragon said.

“I believe fully that if the constitutional officers that are elected to represent you act in a responsible and professional manner, having good relationships within and outside of City Hall, and do their jobs as proscribed by law in a timely fashion, fairly and accurately, frankly the citizens would not have any issues whatsoever with maintaining the constitutional offices. Because those offices are committed to working for the taxpayers,” Ragon said.

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