Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Though the Roman poet Juvenal intended the question “Who shall guard the guardians?” to apply to the protection of wives, the phrase has come more frequently to apply to matters of public administration. Americans instinctively regard high-minded statements of public principle more as evidence of self-interest rather than stemming from a passion for good governance. How are we to separate the wheat from the political chaff?

Ulster County government chief executive Mike Hein may never have met an acronym he didn’t like. His latest, ACE, staffs a new five-person division to be housed within the county government’s finance department. ACE, the county executive says, stands for accountability, compliance and efficiency. The total requested budget for the new office in the 2014 county budget is $415,206, with personnel pegged at $372,303 of that. Benefits will add more than $100,000 to the total annual cost.

According to Hein’s executive budget, the new unit will be responsible for a wide variety of functions: capital projects, grants management, corporate compliance, program development, operational efficiency, risk management and internal controls. It will consist of four members of the staff from the team that assisted in the sale of the county infirmary at Golden Hill to private ownership (“from GHHCC,” the personnel listing says) and a fifth from the county’s self-insurance staff.

Sheree Cross, former Golden Hill administrator, will be paid $102,093 plus benefits to be director of the ACE unit. Other members of the former Golden Hill team will be fiscal officer L. Groeters (at $69,864), fiscal manager J. Baker ($63,707) and financial analyst K. Schlegel ($57,000). The ACE deputy director’s position, presently vacant, will probably have insurance experience and be paid $79,639, according to the personnel listing document. That salary is identical to what the county insurance officer, B. Szpulecki, was listed as being paid in 2013.

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According to my journalistic colleague Hugh Reynolds, the Hein administration has said that there’s still considerable work for the infirmary team to do in wrapping up the privatization of Golden Hill. That task is expected to take up the lion’s share of the team’s attentions for the next two years. Meanwhile, the new division will presumably ramp up performing its other duties.

That the ACE initiative increases the county executive’s power over county government doesn’t make it either a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, the new unit should help the executive put a final end to the age-old tradition of county departments being separate and self-serving fiefdoms responsible only to their own constituencies. On the other hand, it is yet to be proven that the new division can save the taxpayers more money than it will cost.

One hundred thirty years ago the federal government passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which over time has developed rigidities that rival those of the spoils system of political favoritism that it was designed to replace. In the past few years, reformist public administration has made progress in modernizing sclerotic governmental services. In my view, the cleansing power of close public scrutiny is needed to make sure that happens in Ulster County.

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