Thursday, 20 March 2014 17:09
“While the majority may elect the officer, they are not entitled to insist upon the retention in office of one who fails to do his duty.” These are the words of Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, twice appointed to the Supreme Court and once nominated for President, when he removed Manhattan Borough President John Ahearn from office in 1907.
We don’t hear about it very often anymore, but the governor can fire many local elected officials, after formal charges are presented and the official is given the chance to answer them, usually in the form of a public hearing. The governor’s power to sack local officials comes from a mix of the State Constitution, the Public Officer’s Law and the scores of individual governing charters granted to cities and counties over the last 175 years.
Requests to sack mayors, sheriffs, district attorneys and other officials used to arrive at the governor’s office every year, sometimes in piles. When the subject comes up today, it’s almost always related to some kind of blatant corruption situation, but it used to be considered part of the landscape for governors to give the heave-ho to elected officials who stank at their jobs.
When Gov. Hughes canned Ahearn, he was careful to point out that there was no personal corruption involved, merely “breach of duty” because of Ahearn’s failure to keep streets repaired and expensive supply purchases. Several years before, Gov. Odell pink-slipped the Erie County Sheriff because his failure to close a poolroom showed “a lack of appreciation of the responsibilities devolving upon him” and just looked bad. In 1913, Gov. William Sulzer’s investigator cleared Suffolk County Sheriff Melville E. Brush of personal corruption, but the governor fired Brush anyway for “incompetency and inefficiency.”
In 1952, Newsday Publisher Alicia Patterson wired a formal request to Gov. Dewey that he remove Suffolk D.A. Lindsay Henry for his mishandling of a murder charge against a 13-year-old. She wrote: “His ignorance of the laws…constitutes a positive unfitness for office.”
The best remembered removal procedure involved New York City’s super popular, super fun, super soused, playboy mayor of the Jazz Age, “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, partly because Bob Hope starred in the movie (Beau James, 1957, Hope’s lone non-comedic role). During what used to be a traditional lull between his nomination for President in June 1932 and the start of actual campaigning in September, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt grilled Walker in formal hearings after widespread graft was exposed in the city government. Walker wasn’t being charged with taking money himself, though everyone kind of took it for granted, but merely with allowing so much to smell on his watch. Roosevelt gave Walker the chance to resign on the eve of his firing, and Walker did.
In 1940, the non-partisan Taxpayers League of Port Washington petitioned Gov. Lehman to fire the first Nassau County Executive, J. Russel Sprague, for violating the new County Charter’s clause that he “give his whole time to the duties of his office.” Sprague was a visionary who laid the groundwork for a lot of what we take for granted in Nassau County today, but was already a national and state political powerhouse who was busy trying to elect presidents and governors. He seemed to be spending the smallest part of his day actually running county government. The charges were taken seriously by the press and by Gov. Lehan. He left judgement in the hands of voters, who elected Sprague four more times. Sprague modified his governing style to appear more engaged and involved in daily affairs.
For a long time, the governor’s power to dismiss elected county officials was an important public tool of accountability, making elected county officials think about consequences of their actions, or inactions.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org