Revamping Our State Executive
Branch (Part II)

As President-Elect Barack Obama prepares to assume the office of President of these United States, it seems that inadequate attention has been given to the impending change in the executive branch of the First State. Yes, all of us are familiar with Governor-elect Jack Markell’s primary victory over Lt. Governor John Carney and his subsequent win over former state judge Bill Lee to propel him to become the state’s 65th governor. However, with Delawareans, along with other Americans, grappling with a seemingly never-ending influx of negative news ranging from a global recession to renewed conflict in the Middle East, there has been no time to adequately assess the changes required to revamp the highest office of our state for governance in the 21st century. This article is the second of a three-part series aimed at evaluating and providing substantive recommendations to improve our three branches of state government (See Revamping Our State Legislature (Part I), published August 18, 2008 on delawaretoday.com, The Paine Corner archives ).  

With the sunset of the administration of Governor Ruth Ann Minner upon us, there is a general consensus among Democrats and Republicans that the time has come to revisit our state’s executive branch. Though the legacy of Governor Minner, our first female governor, will be debated by historians and politicos for years to come, many of the failings and shortcomings of the Minner administration were not personal to the officeholder (sadly, it has become in vogue to blame individuals, not institutions for policy failures).  Rather, such failings and shortcomings were a direct result of bad precedents and structural deficiencies in our state executive branch. As such, until we address these precedents and deficiencies, we are likely to witness additional failures by future individuals elected to hold our state’s highest office in the 21st century.

In light of the aforementioned, below are a few recommendations to improve our executive branch of government:

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First, we must increase the level of scrutiny given to those appointed to serve in the gubernatorial cabinet to avoid cronyism. In recent times, we have witnessed an increase in the number of positions given to those whose credentials to serve in the cabinet are questionable. Since the adoption of the cabinet form of government by our state during the administration of Gov. Russell W. Peterson (1969-1973), the process used to scrutinize those cabinet-level individuals selected by the governor has been almost non-existent.  Though governors should be entitled to select their cabinet without undue legislative influence (we should allow a governor to “sink or swim” by their own choices so there can be no excuses for failure), the exception to this rule is cronyism. Our state (and our nation’s) founding fathers understood the importance of ensuring that political appointments should not be granted on the basis of patronage; rather, such appointments should be based on the merit and skill of the proposed nominee. Members of our General Assembly should not ignore their legislative duty to duly investigate proposed cabinet nominees to determine if such individuals have the ability to serve the people of our great state in the selected capacity or are appointed to be mere “stooges” of a governor.

Confirmation hearings are serious and should be used as an opportunity to thwart cronyism. The General Assembly should implement a confirmation process that would significantly cripple the ability of any governor to use political cronyism in appointing high-level officials. This important oversight job must be used by the General Assembly properly, not deferred to reporters of The News Journal.

Next, in filling vacancies in our statewide offices, the governor should not have the power to make a deal against the best interest of Delawareans. The recent deal that permitted Governor Minner to appoint Senator (and Vice President elect) Biden’s former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, to fill a vacant Senate seat to permit his son, Beau, to run for the office in two years exemplifies the necessity of limits and “fair play” rules in the political appointment process. (If Beau were not Delaware’s Attorney General, such an action certainly would have been subject to an investigation by the state’s Department of Justice). This recent deal, combined with the Danberg deal that paved the way for Beau to become attorney general two years ago, exemplifies how vacancies can be used as a mechanism to bypass our fundamental democratic principles. As evidenced in other states, vacancies should be resolved by the ballot box, not a ballpoint pen. Our state constitution should be amended to require vacancies in our constitutional offices to be filled by special elections. If the vacancy is short-term (i.e., an upcoming election for the position will occur within six months) the vacancy should be filled by the governor with the advice and consent of the state Senate. By doing this, the ability for political abuse is significantly crippled and those seeking to serve the people of our state are not advantaged through connections to the governor.

Third, our gubernatorial cabinet should reflect the diversity of the state. I am constantly amazed at the lack of diversity around the cabinet table over the past eight years. Diversity is not a political cry or action item only employed during the course of a campaign. Rather, diversity is a concept that should be embodied in all the actions and principles espoused within and throughout our state’s executive office. Surprisingly, over the past decade, the gubernatorial cabinet has not represented the diverse population of our great state (about 30 percent of our state population can be attributed to differing ethnic backgrounds).  Those governors that practice diversity (in a serious manner) are able to obtain broad-based support of their agenda and can capitalize upon the diverse ideas exchanged at cabinet meetings. How can one represent our state if the executive team does not represent the views of our citizens? Bottom line, it is imperative that governors, in forming their cabinet, ensure that adequate representation of our diverse population is represented in the cabinet.

Finally, the number and usage of gubernatorial task forces to address problems facing our state must be reduced. It seems that whenever a political hot-button issue surfaces, a “task force” composed of random individuals is created to study the problem and provide a recommendation (if any) to the governor and state lawmakers. In most instances, the task force is comprised of individuals loyal to the governor. (Of course, why would any sane person appoint individuals to a body that could hurt them politically?) Furthermore, individuals appointed to the task force are not elected by the people—thus, no accountability can be established between members of the task force and the electorate. Certainly, there are occasions when task forces can be beneficial and, if structured properly, they can serve as useful vehicles to provide substantive public policy solutions. However, these times are infrequent, and the public should be able to rely on the individuals they elect to serve as the decision-makers to address our state’s problems—and not have them delegate the problem solving to a body of unknown individuals.

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These are just a few ideas that I submit to the people of this great state to consider in revamping our state executive branch. As Jefferson reminded us in developing our nation, effective governance requires the ability of the people to constantly re-evaluate, recalibrate and revamp our institutions from time to time.  Such a time has come upon us.  
 
After all, common sense must prevail.

 

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