Happy National County Government Month! Huh? Well, if you were not aware, April is National County Government Month. It’s that one time of year where we recognize and celebrate county government for what it is and what it does. If you are confused by the whole concept of celebrating county government, you probably aren’t alone. In fact, I would dare say there are a majority of people that are confused by the concept of county government in general.
Back in high school, Social Studies was the subject I loved the most and when I think about how we discussed government in our country, there was rarely a discussion on the county. Sure, we knew the Federal Government and the three branches and we learned that the State Government operated on much the same system. We knew local government since all the students had to go to at least one city council meeting and meet the mayor and council members.
All that changed my senior year of high school, when I participated in National County Government Week. That year, my teacher, nominated me and I participated with other students throughout the county as we job shadowed county officials. I felt I was one of the lucky ones, I was named “County Commissioner for the Day”. And even though I attended one of the meetings of the County Commission and have lunch with the Commissioners, the role of county government still seemed cloudy.
One of the aspects that lead to all that cloudiness was based on the fact that County Government is so decentralized. If you think about the country or the state or city, you can pretty easy recognize that one person in charge. That person goes by the title of President, Governor or Mayor. County government is so much different; there is no one person in charge. You can argue that the County Commission is in charge, but yet, there are three of them, not one, each one having the same rights and responsibilities as the next one. Then, let’s not forget about all the other county elected officials. We have a clerk of courts, an auditor, a coroner, an engineer, a prosecutor, a sheriff, a recorder, a treasurer and a few judges thrown in for good measure. Each one of these county officials plays a specific role. From collecting taxes (treasurer), to making sure gas pumps are dispensing what they should (auditor), to researching how some people pass away (coroner). County government is a giant collection of officials carrying out these responsibilities.
Yet, through all the confusion, County government is the oldest form of government in Ohio. In the frontier days before statehood, the county was in many respects the only responsible form of local government making sure that the peace was kept and that local vagrants went to jail. A little while later, different office holders were added such to ensure that roads were built and maintained and taxes were collected fairly all based to promote progress and commerce in a rural environment.
The system that was first brought about in the 18th Century still exists in the 21stCentury and there are many that will argue that the system needs to change. Many counties are not the agrarian society that the system was set up to serve. But in Ohio, 86 of our 88 counties, from rural to urban are still run the way the system was set up to work. Others would argue that other forms of government have changed as well. Many a community has adopted their own charters to hire professional municipal managers to run the day to day affairs of their communities. Slowly, many counties are brining on professional managers to help elected officials accomplish the same goal; provide for the efficient and effective of necessary public services.
Counties still play pivotal roles in our daily lives. For example, they are the backbone of our community’s justice system and coordinate emergency service provision, such as fire and police, across jurisdictional boundaries. As counties continue to grow, it is safe to say that their structure will be under more and more pressure to change. Until then, there are still opportunities to understand county government and to serve fellow residents through the county government. Attend a meeting, volunteer for boards and commissions. After all, it is your county government and it relies on all of us in order for it to work the best way it can.
William (Bill) Lutz is a Miami County resident