The next exec: The second in an occasional series of articles addressing issues related to the 2003 Monroe County Executive race.
Call it political Fear Factor.
A year ago, County Executive Jack Doyle convened three public forums to discuss the concept of consolidating local governments and school districts. The forums were inspired by remarks Mayor Bill Johnson had made in his 2002 State of the City address a month earlier.
In his May 21, 2002, report on the forums, submitted to the Council of Governments, Doyle wrote that Johnson had "called for 'systemic change' to our present structure of government," during the address, had "derided what he called the 'costly duplication of local governments' and held out Louisville's metro government model as an example our community should emulate."
"Johnson described the 30 municipalities and 18 school districts in Monroe County as a 'luxury,'" Doyle wrote, "and suggested we would be better off with countywide schools and fewer local governments."
As his report on the forums makes clear, Doyle is no fan of the metro government approach. In particular, he's concerned that such consolidation would make government less accountable and responsive to citizens.
So why go through the trouble of holding public forums on the idea? "I believed it was important for the public to have the opportunity to discuss the merits of Mayor Johnson's arguments," Doyle wrote.
On this point, at least, the Democratic mayor and the Republican county exec --- notorious political foes --- can agree. But you still can't help but wonder if Doyle had an ulterior motive in holding the forums. Johnson certainly thinks so.
The letter Doyle sent to community leaders and town and school officials announcing the forums "was very frightening, very ominous," Johnson says. "It says, [paraphrasing] 'As you know, Mayor Johnson wants to take over your town and your village and your school district. You need to come out here to this public hearing and express your concern about that.'"
A year later, as Johnson begins his campaign for county executive against Republican County Clerk Maggie Brooks, political observers expect Johnson's interest in consolidation to be a major issue. And many of those same observers, especially Democrats, expect the Brooks campaign to foster a fear that should Johnson win the race, people will soon lose the unique towns, villages, and school districts they treasure.
"There is no question that the Republican campaign strategy is to promote fear by telling people, over and over again, that Bill Johnson, if he were elected county exec, would create a county-wide consolidated school district and metropolitan government, essentially obliterating all of the existing towns, villages, and school districts," says Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel, a Democrat.
"Nothing could be farther from the truth," Frankel says, "but that doesn't mean that fear factor isn't real."
Penfield Town Supervisor Channing Philbrick, a Republican, recalls a day a few years ago after Johnson made a relatively vague statement endorsing a regional approach to government.
"He mentioned school systems," Philbrick says, "and, boy, I got calls the very next day. Several residents called and just wanted to be sure I was aware they were adamant about any change in the school systems. I think that may have been a knee-jerk reaction, but I know that was a real quick one."
Philbrick says he was able to assuage the callers' fears that the mayor of Rochester could make changes to the town's school district. This year, Philbrick may be in the position of explaining that a county executive couldn't alter Penfield's schools, either.
"I think most people don't appreciate [that] the mayor or any one elected official really couldn't do this," Philbrick says of school consolidation.
Indeed, local legislators and town leaders of both parties know that a county executive could not single-handedly do much of anything to alter the county's current system of government or its school districts.
"If people are worried that any one individual, as executive, can come in and abolish their town or merge school districts --- that can't happen," says long-time County Legislator Kevin Murray, a Democrat.
Johnson himself stresses his inability to merge governments or districts. "No one person --- the governor, the president, the pope, and certainly the county executive --- has that kind of power," he says. However, he adds, "I think that's precisely the fear that [the Republicans] are raising, and the facts absolutely controvert that."
Merging towns or school districts would be a very complex, contentious, and lengthy process, Johnson and others say. Such mergers require state legislation --- in some cases, amendments to the state constitution --- and public votes or referenda. Even the smaller-scale merging of government services "requires cooperation between a lot of entities, including both political parties," Murray says. "And that requires certain skills that we haven't seen in recent years."
Republican County Legislator Mike Hanna knows that a county executive could not unilaterally merge school districts. However, he says, "I think people should be concerned about it, absolutely, because [Johnson's] preached consolidation for a number of years.
"If I lived in Brighton, for example, that would be one of the first school districts that he probably would like to consolidate with the city of Rochester," Hanna says. "That would be a concern of mine."
That's not a concern Frankel, Brighton's supervisor, shares. "I don't believe that the people of Brighton want a consolidated, county-wide school district," she says. "But neither does Bill Johnson."
"I don't think the people of Brighton need to worry that Bill Johnson would try to consolidate their school district," she adds. "My conversations with him indicate that is not something he is promoting or advocating."
Johnson says people have approached him during his campaign asking about his consolidation plan, but he says to respond to that question "is to fall into a trap, because that means that one person is trying to set the tone and set the terms of this debate.
"I'm not gonna do that," he adds. First, he says, the community must reach consensus that consolidation is worth studying. Study groups and reports would follow, followed by more public discussion.
Which brings up another of Hanna's concerns. He says Johnson's interest in consolidation may not lead to merged school districts, "but it could possibly be something that would be a waste of a lot of someone's time, when there are other pressing issues that we face."