Is Creating An Independent Citizens Budget Commission Possible?

In 2006 the Erie County Legislature (Buffalo, NY) adopted legislation which amended the County Charter by creating a Citizens Budget Review Commission. The push for such a commission came about due to the fiscal meltdown of the County several years ago.

I support the idea of a Citizens Budget Review Commission as an opportunity for members of the public to volunteer and participate in the workings of government. The County Charter requires the 11 member Commission to meet regularly issue reports on a regular basis and to file an Annual Report with the County Legislature.

While the legislation creating the Commission was passed six years ago, it has not been implemented. The County Legislature will be voting on legislation titled the Budget Modernization Act of 2012, which among other things makes changes to how the Citizens Budget Review Commission is formed.

Currently the County Charter requires the 11 members of the Commission to be appointed as follows:

1 person by the Erie County Executive
5 individuals by various legislators
1 attorney – 3 names are to be recommended by the Erie County Bar Association
1 business person- 3 names are to be recommended by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership
1 labor representative – 3 names recommended by the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council
1 certified public accountant – 3 names recommended by WNY Chapter of Certified Public Accountant Association
1 person with banking/finance experience – 3 names recommended by banking institutions

The legislature chooses one person from the three names recommended. The Budget Modernization Act of 2012 if approved removes the requirement for legislators to receive recommended names from the organizations listed above. Instead of accepting recommendations, legislators will hand pick ten members of the Commission.

A better approach in my opinion is for the five organizations listed above to refer one name to serve on the Citizens Budget Review Commission. A Citizen Budget Review Commission should at least have some members that are independent and not hand picked by legislators. The professional organizations that the Charter allows to submit names, should be trusted and empowered to pick independent Commission members.

Imagine a Citizens Budget Review Commission consisting of five hand picked individuals by the legislature, five completely independent individuals picked by professional organizations and one person picked by the County Executive. A group like that could have some interesting meetings that just might result in good questions being asked and different perspectives being offered, which we need in government today.

Allowing the legislature to hand pick ten members of an eleven member Commission will result in the usual suspects serving who are too intertwined with the partisan politics of the legislature.

When a Legislator asked why the ability of organizations to recommend names was being removed the response provided was that it has been difficult to get names from the organizations of people who are willing to serve on the Commission.

Creating an Independent Budget Commission is important and I believe that it is possible to get citizens who are willing to serve if the desire is there to do so.

Is creating an independent Citizens Budget Commission possible? What appointment process do you think is the best way to get independent citizen representation on a government commission?

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David Dejewski

While a nice idea, I don’t see it happening unless local politicians are backed so far into a corner that they need to get attention off of themselves. Sharing budget decision making with a group of people who are not involved in the quid-pro-quo, back-room deal making, or marketing spin that always surrounds this process is a decision maker’s nightmare. They would lose control.
The budgeting process is already too complicated and takes too long with the current level of back scratching and deal making that goes on behind the scenes. Can you imagine the extra workload for these decision makers and their staffs if they suddenly have to bring in 11 more people (and organizations), at least 11 more agendas, and work the press to make the whole thing look like what’s being done is more democratic and in the best interest of the people.
Nope. The people with microphones and current budget control are going to fight this. Maybe not publicly, but they are going to fight it.
I’m thinking the IDEA of an independent budget commission is really either someone’s idea of a threat to bend these guys over a barrel, or it’s the product of a runaway special interest group that they failed to keep in check.