In abandoning the concept of appointing a county administrator, the Salt Lake County Commission undoubtedly did the right thing this week. The whole idea was surrounded by too many questions and too few satisfactory answers.
The goal of commissioners was laudable - to relieve themselves of some day-to-day administrative duties and give themselves more time for important long-range planning and policy-making.But a proposal to hire a full-time executive to take over administrative tasks was not as easy as it sounded.
If such a job just added another layer to existing county government structure, little would be accomplished. To be effective, the post would have required commissioners to give up some of their authority - raising a dubious legal question. It also would have needed considerable reorganization of county departments. Department leaders would have lost some of their authority and perhaps been faced with a pay cut.
Even the commissioners themselves had differing views on such a move and how an administrator would function. All this together proved to be too much for the idea and it quietly sank.
Commissioners will now look for other ways to reduce their workload, perhaps by making more use of department heads and others as an informal "Cabinet" to help with county planning and policy.
The problem that commissioners are trying to deal with lies basically in the existing county commission form of government. It puts executive and legislative duties in the hands of the same people - a large workload, in addition to a lack of constitutional checks and balances.
Commissioners are elected at-large and run a sprawling, checkerboard county broken up by a dozen cities. There is little feel of neighborhood contact or personal representation, a lack that has led some communities to seek to incorporate.
What the county really needs - as the Deseret News has pointed out on other occasions - is a different form of county government that separates the administrative and policy-making functions.
Unfortunately, changes in state law are needed to accommodate what the county would like to do in this regard. The Legislature refused to pass such changes last year and the idea never came up this session.
But until such fundamental alterations are made, county commissioners are going to continue to wrestle with a built-in problem and will enjoy only limited success at it.