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County scouts the road to a mayor

Back when the job of county government was largely to get ditches dug and cow paths cut, it seemed a fine idea to let a few prominent landowners and shopkeepers run things in their spare time. Hillsborough's first county commissioners earned $2 a day for their infrequent sessions, and when county business was done, they went back to more important things, such as running their farms.

Almost 150 years later, things are a little more complicated.

Last year, Hillsborough commissioners met 295 times to deal with the business of a county where subdivisions have supplanted strawberry fields and cow paths have become gridlocked highways. Only two of seven part-time commissioners have other jobs.

These days, residents demand everything of Hillsborough that they demand of a major city such as Tampa, and then some. But, critics charge, the county lacks the management to match.

Hillsborough has outgrown its commission of caretakers, these critics say. It needs a strong leader who can bring efficiency to the $1.5-billion behemoth of county government.

It needs, they say, a county mayor.

Commissioners will meet Thursday to discuss how to replace an appointed administrator with an elected chief executive or mayor. Some hope to put a charter amendment on the ballot for voters this year.

They face a fight, though, from others who say the job is a powerful political plum easily dominated by development and banking interests.

But what about places where a county mayor isn't just a theory?

In Shelby County, Tenn., which includes Memphis, the state's largest city, the arrangement has been a reality for 14 years.

"We've been elevated by the virtue of having a county mayor. . . . It's given us as much visibility as any county government anywhere in the nation," said Shelby County Commissioner Jim Rout, who hopes to be mayor himself someday.

In Bergen County, N.J., the affluent residential community near New York City that former President Richard Nixon calls home, voters put their first county executive in office in 1986.

"A lot of people like myself didn't see some of the pitfalls at the time," said Linda Baer, a member of Bergen's Board of Freeholders, its version of a county commission. She favored the change five years ago but now has her doubts.

In Orange County, Fla., where the biggest city is Orlando and the biggest name is Disney, the campaign is on for November's election of the first county chairman, as its new chief executive will be called.

"A community that sets up a position of this nature is setting up a very strong political position," said James L. Harris, who led the charter-review commission that proposed the chairman's post. "The wrong person in a job of this nature can wreak havoc in a government."

As some in Hillsborough look to follow these counties, and others try to stop them, they'll find themselves tangled in issues such as these:

No one disputes that a county mayor has power, but how much will he use? Some counties wind up with aggressive community salesmen as mayors, others with workmanlike administrators who don't rock the boat.

Mayor supporters are disciples of Harry Truman, longing for a place where the buck can stop. A single, decisive leader, they say, will end the delays and excuses that plague government by committee.

Proponents say increased efficiency means savings for taxpayers, but to others, a new layer of government means a new layer of costs.

Minority groups have challenged the county mayor structure in some places, saying their voice likely will be diminished by the ascension of a powerful single leader.

Different folks, strokes

Bill Morris and William McDowell are six years apart in age, a word apart in title and a universe apart in style.

Consider this snippet of the lengthy description the 57-year-old Morris, three-term mayor of Shelby County, Tenn., gives of his job:

"We travel nationwide and worldwide with teams of people from the community to carry the message of our city (Memphis), to open the doors and invite foreign capital investment and sell the product of our community."

Then there's McDowell, 63, the first-term county executive of Bergen County, N.J.:

"I enjoy, for better or for worse, getting into the pits, if you would, getting into the day-to-day things that happen here. I know county executives who do none of that. They're out like a PR campaign constantly."

People abound in each community who say they wouldn't trade their kind of leader for the other. But the differences illustrate that simply establishing the mayor's job doesn't give any guarantees.

In Shelby County, Morris' aggressive leadership has been the norm for 12 of the 14 years there has been a county mayor. A well-liked former sheriff, Morris has broad community support, and his economic-development work with the city of Memphis is a major reason.

Even those who often disagree with Morris, such as Shelby County Commissioner Carolyn Gates, acknowledge his skill in getting what he wants.

"He is the consummate politician and the consummate persuader," she said. After another term as mayor, Morris wants to be governor.

McDowell, also a popular former sheriff, is a soft-spoken man who has allayed the fears of some in his county that the creation of his job would bring on a tyrant. Countywide planning symposiums have been his proudest accomplishment.

"I had a great reluctance to grant what I saw as immense power to one person," said Charles "Jim" O'Dowd, chairman of Bergen's Board of Freeholders. But, he said, "the person who was . . . elected as the first county executive is not the kind of person I fear."

Some who sought other qualities from a county executive, such as more dynamic leadership, say the new system hasn't fulfilled its promise.

Freeholder Linda Baer is one of two Democrats in a Republican-dominated government, but she says she would feel the same about the system no matter who was in charge.

"You've heard the term "benevolent despot'? That's basically what you have. You have a despot, whether it's benevolent or not. You have somebody who has absolute power," Baer said. "If there's a problem in government, the information about that problem goes to the executive, and it can be buried and often is buried."

O'Dowd says such fears are overblown.

"He has never tried to ram anything down our throats," he said. Indeed, surrounded by fellow Republicans, McDowell finds little opposition to his proposals. It brings criticism from some that the freeholders are merely a rubber stamp.

"Well, tough," O'Dowd replied. "He and I both say we're here to get the job done. We're not here to put on a public display of Rocky II."

The expense of efficiency

Jim Sheehan, proprietor of Sheehan's Pub in Hackensack, N.J., knows something about local politics. He served as mayor of a Bergen town and on a charter-study commission in 1975, and he has a few opinions about the change.

"We feel government's more expensive now," Sheehan said in between pouring beers in his tavern. "You've got a whole staff for the executive and a whole staff for the freeholders."

High salaries and free-spending executives are a source of complaint from those opposed to a mayor system.

Most counties with executives or mayors also employ professional administrators, so the executives _ who often earn less than the $110,000 that Hillsborough County Administrator Larry Brown makes _ aren't the only high-salaried officials.

Bergen's McDowell makes $98,850 a year. Shelby's Morris makes $87,500, more than Tennessee's governor, and soon will get a pay raise to $96,513.

"When I was running for the board, our county government (budget) was $227-million," Baer said of Bergen County. "This year it's $330-million, less than three years later. If some of the people who are advocating it are saying that government will be more efficient and effective and it will cost us less, it's not going to cost you less."

But others argue that local budgets inevitably grow because of more people, more demands and fewer federal and state dollars.

Shelby County, with a $500-million budget, hasn't raised the tax rate for about seven years, although commissioners say next year _ after the 1990 election _ an increase probably will be inevitable.

Bergen's tax rate actually has dropped, although Freeholder O'Dowd jokes that "any jerk could have done that." Property values have skyrocketed, bringing in more money. But O'Dowd said that in two of the past four years, about a third of Bergen's residents actually paid less tax.

Those who do think a chief executive system might cost more say it could be worth it to advance the community.

"Does it mean that just because you spend more money, are you not perhaps attracting more industry? Are you therefore creating more jobs?" asked Shelby Commissioner Jim Rout, who says he is a fiscal conservative. "In business, it takes money to make money."

One constituency has some special reservations about a mayor system: minorities.

In Orange County, the only group still fighting the change is the predominantly black Orange County Political Coalition.

The Rev. Sam Hoard, vice president of the group, said blacks wanted to exchange the current five-member commission elected at large for seven commissioners from individual districts.

"It's the only way we can ever get anybody elected," Hoard said. "Any time you have anybody elected at large, you assure that they're white."

A single-member district proposal was on the 1988 referendum ballot alongside the county chairman measure and actually gained more votes, although a majority of voters approved both. Attorneys said the ballot's wording meant that if the chairman proposal simply got a majority of yes votes, it prevailed. The coalition has filed a court challenge.

County Commissioner Linda Chapin, a candidate for chairman, points out that no black has ever run for the commission.

"To complain they've been shut out without ever trying to be part is a specious argument," Chapin said.

But Hoard still opposes the new plan. "They say things take longer when you don't have a strong mayor. What's wrong with things taking longer if things are done fairly?"

The people, not the system

The change wasn't an easy sell in Orange County, but those who lobbied for it think a lot like James L. Harris.

After spending 25 years as a professional government manager, 13 of them as Orange County's administrator, Harris believes that the commission/manager system works. But not, anymore, for a county like Orange.

He says booming growth has brought big-city problems and that the current system leaves a leadership void.

"The result is, with some reluctance, I finally came to the conclusion that Orange County needed a political, identifiable leader who was going to espouse a program for that community, run on that program . . . and work like the dickens to get it into effect," said Harris, who now runs Anheuser Busch's Florida real estate operations.

No matter what their stand on the mayor issue, people in Bergen, Shelby and Orange counties are in step on one sentiment: Ultimately, it is the officeholders, not the offices, that make the difference between good and bad government.

"People sometimes like to change the skin on the skeleton, but the heart and soul are the people and the players," said Richard Hackett, mayor of the city of Memphis, who works closely with Shelby County Mayor Morris. "If there's a problem with the operations, they ought to change the operators and not spend so much time getting wrapped up in changing titles."