If Commissioner Dave Watson gets his way, Salt Lake County government will soon be run by political appointees instead of professional bureaucrats.
But opponents, including fellow Commissioner Mike Stewart, claim such a move would lead to a government run by political hacks who may not know what they are doing.Watson, who is in charge of the Public Works Department, said Thursday he sometimes feels like little more than a figurehead and that commissioners often have difficulty changing the way things are run.
With the exception of three department directors, most county administrators are part of a merit system and can't easily be fired. They often remain in their jobs for years, outlasting several commissioners.
"There's nothing you can do to compel people to do things," Watson said, noting some division directors feel they know better than commissioners and refuse to follow orders. "There are times I sit here and feel a commissioner does little more than react to proposals made by the bureaucracy."
Watson wants to set the county's approximately 30 division directors free from the merit system, meaning they could be hired or fired at the whim of the commissioner in charge of their jobs. The remaining county employees would still be protected by the system.
When told of the plan, some division directors said they would require higher salaries if they had to work at a job that was insecure.
Stewart, in charge of the Human Services Department, said commissioners can accomplish much in spite of the merit system.
"I can't fire them, but I can reorganize and bump them down in the system," he said. "I really feel I very much control what goes on."
Stewart said government works best when it is administered by trained professionals, not by appointees who change after every election.
"There haven't been very many dumb professional decisions I can think of," he said.
"The career service mentality in government has made things far more professional. I would hate to see us return to the days of the spoils system."
Watson said two recent matters were classic examples of how bureaucrats run county government.
One involved a painful commission decision to build a golf course in Dimple Dell Park. Watson, the only commissioner to vote against the course, said the project was conceived and pushed by the Recreation and Parks Division, not by commissioners.
The other involved Watson's plan to turn the Salt Lake City-County landfill over to a private business. Watson said he had difficultly getting information about the landfill budget because administrators opposed the plan.
"Unlike a lot of politicians, I don't view this as my job," Watson said. "I want to have an impact and then get out. If you want to stay here 10 or 12 years, you probably don't mind the slowness of the bureaucracy."
Stewart recently announced plans to run for a third four-year term. Watson is expected to announce next week that he is running for a second two-year term.
The third commissioner, Chairman Bart Barker, said he is undecided about whether to support the plan.
The Career Service Council, an independent tribunal that hears and decides employee grievances, would make the final decision on whether to remove division directors from the merit system. But first the plan must be supported by at least two commissioners.