Much of what happened in the four months before last week’s unusual removal of a sitting Nebraska county treasurer will become clearer in coming weeks.
Regardless of those facts, Lincoln County voters already have been reminded of the need to carefully scrutinize their choices for every elected public office.
If nothing else in this situation proves that, consider the rarity of the action our county commissioners took last Monday.
County boards in Nebraska hold their respective county’s ultimate executive authority — but only to a point.
Voters are called upon to elect not only their board members but also a set of “row officials” to lead certain specific departments.
In smaller counties, some of those leaders may be chosen by contract rather than elections. In Lincoln County, voters fill the posts of the county clerk, sheriff, attorney, treasurer, assessor, register of deeds, clerk of the district court, public defender and surveyor.
Though the county board retains the “power of the purse” at budget time, it usually can’t tell that group of row officials how to spend their money or run their offices.
It can’t remove any of them from office, either — except, as we were suddenly reminded, in the rarest of circumstances.
If any county official (including a county board member) is accused of misdeeds or neglect, state law typically directs Nebraska’s courts to judge his or her future.
But the law invoked to dismiss first-year Treasurer Lorie Koertner lets a county board immediately remove a treasurer who “neglects or refuses to render any account or settlement required by law, fails or neglects to account for any balance due the state, county, township, school district, or any other municipal subdivision, or is guilty of any other misconduct in office.”
That law has been in Nebraska’s statute books since 1879. It was invoked in 1880 in Greeley County, north of Grand Island. It apparently hadn’t been used in 139 years.
Until last Monday.
A different state law, in place since at least 1943, requires county boards, county treasurers and county attorneys to ensure that unpaid property taxes are collected, including foreclosing on and selling affected properties.
This law directs the courts to judge and remove anyone among that group of elected county officials “who willfully fails, neglects or refuses to perform” their duties regarding unpaid taxes.
But it adds: “If the county board fails to dismiss the county attorney for failure to foreclose liens, the county board shall be removed.”
That’s all five commissioners, in our case.
These are the only two laws, based on our review, empowering a county board to remove a voter-chosen leader of a county department.
Collection and handling of the public’s tax dollars — this will surprise no one — is serious business indeed.
Nebraskans still like to fill several executive-branch offices ourselves. That’s true at the state level as well as in the counties.
It stems from 19th-century ideas that voters are the best judges of their own peers and that filling such “down-ballot” posts by election keeps executives from gaining too much power.
Well and good. But for that approach to work its best, we voters must be as well informed as possible about the qualifications and the abilities of the people who put themselves forward for those jobs.
No system is perfect. And someone who appears to have the skills for a particular elective office may prove deficient in practice.
But we expect our county board, for example, to make wise choices in choosing nonelected leaders of other county departments, such as roads and emergency management.
Whenever we’re preparing to go to the polls — and no matter how “routine” the office we’re voting on may seem — we must hold ourselves to that same standard.