Sunset Review: Time for a Change?

As we wrote last year and earlier this year in a series of Briefs the County dropped the ball on its sunset review of departments. The Home Rule Charter calls for departments to be "evaluated every four years, and be eliminated unless specifically renewed" (emphasis added) and charges the County Manager with the review and vests Council with the power to continue, reorganize, or eliminate departments. Council can follow the recommendations of the Manager, but they are not bound by them.

A funny thing happened between the time of the Charter and the creation of the administrative code that spells out the specific sunset review procedures. Section 5-1201.05 B spells out Council’s role once the review is in their hands. "Upon receipt of the County Manager’s recommendation, County Council may adopt an ordinance or resolution on or before October 15 to either (1) continue the existence of the affected department for another four years; (2) to abolish the department, or; (3) Reorganize the department subject to evaluation and review" (emphasis added).

The most recent review-which was published seven years after the first, well past the mandatory four year cycle-came on December 31, 2010. By the code language, Council would have had ten months to take action. They did not have to, since the section says "may" and not "shall" but silence on the matter should not convey continued existence since that is at odds with the Charter language that there ought to be a specific renewal. That is different from renewing by not taking action, or using the budget process as a tacit blessing for a department to continue.

By all indications Council has not taken any action. A search of legislation on Council’s portion of the County website does not turn up anything related to sunset review in 2011 and the latest action recorded was as of December 6 of last year, some three weeks before the review was published on the Manager’s page.

One of two things has to happen: either Council has to amend the administrative code language to change "may" to "shall" so that present and future Councils take an up-or-down vote on sunset reviews or they need to propose an ordinance to strip the sunset review out of the Charter and the code so that is no longer required. The halfway method of delayed reviews and no follow-up makes a sham of the sunset review.