A Conversation with NACo CEO Matthew D. Chase

Host, David Martin sat down with NACo CEO Matthew D. Chase at the annual National Association of Counties conference as part of a series of conversations with those in and around county government. Our own Good Government Show questionnaire.

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A Conversation with NACo CEO Matthew D. Chase Transcription

David Martin: This is the good government show.

Matthew D. Chase: When residents aren’t even aware of the county government. They’re probably doing a great job. 90% of a county budget is preprogrammed through state and federal mandates before the local act officials even get to make any decisions on what they’re going to invest in. Okay. So the first thing is to recognize that the elected officials don’t have as much flexibility is probably the average resident thinks.

The key is that counties very rarely accomplish something by themselves. We’re collaborative. We’re partnering with nonprofits, with residents, with the private sector. And the key to our success is partnerships.

David Martin: Welcome to the good government show. Any good government show extra. I’m your host, Dave Martin. I recently attended the National Association of Counties annual Conference. This is where many of the nation’s county officials gather to share ideas, set a course for the coming year and promote good government. I talked to many county leaders and ask them to define what good government means to them and how they measure their success.

Here on this special edition of The Good Government Show are their answers. It’s sort of our own good government show questionnaire. First up is the CEO and executive director of the National Association of Counties, Matt Chase. And I think you’ll find Matt as impressive as we have, and I’ll be back with this conversation right after this.

The Good Government Show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the in the United States and touches more people directly. Think about it. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling, law enforcement, water and sewers. In most of the country, those services are maintained by the county. That’s county government. NACO is a nationwide organization and they represent all 3069 counties across the USA. NACO helps county government work better together, do things like sharing best practices and as we see in this and other episodes, when county government works well, well, that’s just good government. The good government show gets many of our stories from NACO. So thanks for the stories and thanks NACO for working to support good government.

David Martin: Welcome back to the Good Government Show. And if you like what you hear, then please follow us and like us on Facebook and Twitter and rate the podcast on the platform where you’re listening. Now, your comments help us continue to tell these great stories. And of course, listen to season two of the good government show. Now, here’s my conversation with Matt Chase.

Welcome to the Good Government Show. Good government show Extra. I’m your host, David Martin. And I’m sitting here today with Matthew Chase. Matt is the president of the National Association of Counties, and we are here at the NACO Annual Convention this year in Adams County in Colorado. Thanks for coming, David.

Matthew D. Chase: Thank you. Excited to be here.

David Martin: Let’s just start with the basics. There’s probably some people who’ve never heard of Naco, who don’t know what it is. Some of our listeners. Could you just tell us a little bit about what Naco is and what your mission is?

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah, we were founded in 1935 by county elected officials representing the 3069 county governments, parishes and boroughs across the country. We represent 40,000 county elected officials and about 3.6 million county employees. And our job is really to be their eyes and ears in Washington, D.C., is part of what we call the inter-governmental process. Sounds fancy, but it’s really about how federal, state, local and tribal government leaders work together to serve our residents.

David Martin: What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about county government? It’s hard to think of three things you can expound.

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah, county governments are there to serve the communities. County governments actually are the oldest form of government in the United States that still exists from our founding county. Governments date back to 1634 when the first eight shires were created in the Williamsburg, Virginia area. They started out as an arm of the king to serve the local community. As we became a country, county governments were established as arms of the state.

So we’re substate units of government. We’re there to be an administrative arm of the state, helps with things like driver’s licenses, marriage licenses, land records, voting. But we also have the ability to meet the needs of the community where they are parks and rec, libraries, roads, etc..

David Martin: You said that counties were the oldest form of government. Like what about like the mayor and you know, the town government or the city government?

Matthew D. Chase: Counties were basically in the south. In New England, you had more of a town government.

David Martin: Okay.

Matthew D. Chase: And really, there’s two forms of government, either the New York model or the Pennsylvania model. Won’t get too deep into it.

David Martin: Okay. But this is the time to slow.

Matthew D. Chase: The bottom line is, in New York, you had town governments and then the town supervisors sat on the county board once a month. Okay. Versus the south. Really, the municipalities are driven more through the county government. But the key is, regardless of your form of government, counties are locally elected officials who are there to provide essential services to their residents.

Things that you can’t live without. So county governments own 45% of all the road miles in this country, about 40% of all bridges, about a third of the airports, as an example. And we run things that people just take for granted, but they help make our lives a lot better.

David Martin: You talked about the 40, 45% of the roads counties own. Does that mean the rest is split up among several entities?

Matthew D. Chase: Correct. State governments own about 17% think of the interstates and other major roads, and then cities and municipalities own the rest. The central government owns, I believe, like less than 1%.

David Martin: I know that you you you are an advocate for county government. Is it the most effective form of government that affects people locally?

Matthew D. Chase: Well, we think so. And the reason is you’ve seen one county. You’ve seen one county. Yeah. They’re all structured differently. They’re all tailored to the local culture. They’re state even at the local level. And they’re really designed to meet the community’s needs. And there’s huge checks and balances. The biggest difference between counties and a lot of other forms, particularly at the local level, is you have a county board that serves as the legislative branch.

They’re like the budget appropriators. They also sometimes have the executive function, but then you have all these independently elected officials like the sheriffs, the clerks, even the coroners who do the medical examiner work. And they are what are known as constitutional officers. They have their own checks and balances with each other.

David Martin: One of the reasons why we got into this whole podcast, in this whole good government story idea was it sprang from one of our partners talking to a county commissioner. And apparently the number one question every county commissioner is asked is, what is it you guys do? Is that.

Matthew D. Chase: Correct? Absolutely. And that’s something we work on every single day. I think one of the differences in counties in, say, a city, when you have a city with a mayor, that’s one individual. Right. And they are incentivized to go out and market themselves and what their city is doing. Counties are more of a team business where it’s run by a council of people, 3 to 11 people typically.

So it’s like a team sport. Not to say that cities aren’t, but the mayor is more recognizable versus a county commission of, like I said, 3 to 11 people. Who’s in charge? How does it work? It’s a little bit more complicated. And we’re not the best at telling our story.

David Martin: Well, we’re trying to help you.

Matthew D. Chase: And thank you.

David Martin: You’re welcome. It’s been a rough year for government. It’s been a rough couple of years for government.

Matthew D. Chase: It’s been a rough couple of years for the country.

David Martin: For the country, too. Yes. But for government as well as we are emerging. If that’s a fair word or as as we are, we are where we are. Correct. What things can you tell me that should give listeners hope?

Matthew D. Chase: Oh, I think there’s a ton of hope. So, one, we we managed to work through the elections and we would still proudly say that we run the most effective elections in the world and the system held. So we’re very proud of the county, the elected officials who run those elections, as well as the career staff in the 700,000 volunteers that we have.

I think with public health, we’ve had a lot of challenges. For sure, we still are making progress, not just with COVID, but with many other public health issues. What makes me really proud is to watch folks work across the political aisle still on the most practical issues. Again, roads and bridges, libraries, hospitals, those things that we work on.

People are still working together to make their communities better.

David Martin: Do you think that at the county level that it’s a little bit more bipartisan than it might be on other levels of government?

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah, I would say it’s actually more nonpartisan. And what I mean by that.

David Martin: Yes. Correct. Yes. Intermixing.

Matthew D. Chase: Well, it depends on the state. There are many states where counties officials don’t run with a political label. There are some that they do. And they have to go through primaries and general elections, but they still work across the aisle incredibly well.

David Martin: So we’re here at the National Convention for Naco. Has there been any sort of theme to this year’s convention? Is there any sort of talk or mood or attitude this year?

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah, I think a very positive attitude that folks are very aware of all the challenges that we have. One of the top themes is mental health and people’s well-being. We’re seeing major spikes in behavioral health issues, both with substance abuse and things like suicide. But we’re coming to the table with solutions at this that we’re launching something called Mental Health First Aid to help not only our county employees, but the residents.

Do some quick basic checks on themselves and their neighbors and their family members to see do they need help? Yeah, because isolation was one of the biggest issues. Sure. We saw lost learning with kids, etc.. So there’s a huge emphasis regardless of political party, regardless of rural, suburban, urban, on making sure we’re addressing the well-being of our residents.

David Martin: The federal government just really recently launched in 1988.

Matthew D. Chase: Correct, for.

David Martin: Mine, which is like a911.

Matthew D. Chase: For suicides, assaults.

David Martin: Suicide. I think it grew out of the suicide prevention hotline and now it’s sort of branched out into other areas. Is that something that counties are starting to incorporate and work with on a local level for referrals?

Matthew D. Chase: Yes, huge priority. We’ve had many sessions here. We’ve been working on it for well over a year. And yeah, that is a top priority. It’s got to integrate into a lot of the counties working with the United Way and other partners who already have suicide prevention programs locally. But this is now a national system that is really needed.

David Martin: All right. So now that was the preamble. Now we have a sort of a list of questions that are asking different people here. And I’ll put all these to you. What? You read it.

Matthew D. Chase: Okay.

David Martin: Here we go. All right. That’s not rapid fire. You take your time, okay? I want a full answer. What is good government to you?

Matthew D. Chase: Good government is about really being inclusive and listening to your residents and being transparent. But I think what is really good government is building and investing in the fundamental building blocks for our communities. And I think what people forget is we became a great nation because of public investment and public decisions, whether it was the canal system, partially the railroads, our airports, our research and development.

And at the local level, it’s things like parks and libraries and community facilities. So good government to me is making tough decisions and being a statesman to think about what are the investments you need to make today that aren’t politically popular but will pay dividends over time?

David Martin: Is it hard to make those decisions that aren’t politically popular but, you know, are necessary or needed or beneficial?

Matthew D. Chase: Absolutely. Because you’re asking elected officials with a two, four, six year term to make long term decisions when their performance review is every four years. Okay. And it’s really tough to spend or invest money today for future generations.

David Martin: How do citizens how do the people know if they’re actually getting effective government, if the government is working for them?

Matthew D. Chase: Well, I’ll speak from the county government once. When residents aren’t even aware of the county government, they’re probably doing a great job. Right. So if the elections are just functioning, if the roads are open, the bridges are open, the parks are open, and you just use them and you don’t have to think about it. That’s good government.

David Martin: So no news is good news and.

Matthew D. Chase: No news is good government. And unfortunately for for a lot of residents, when they have to interact with counties, it’s often not a good day. Meaning we run the court systems, we run the jails, we have homeless centers, we have a speeding ticket. You get a speeding ticket. So oftentimes that’s when they become aware of our services, Child Protective Services, Family Court, those kind of things.

And those aren’t good days.

David Martin: So notice is Kunduz. Everything’s open is closed. That’s how you know everything’s going well. Perfect. All right. Well, that works. So as the president of Naco, how do you know personally if you’re being effective, if you’re leading an effective campaign on behalf of county government? What are your personal measurements? Yardsticks?

Matthew D. Chase: Well, one, I work for a board of directors of 128 individuals in an executive committee of eight, 120 128. So 100 and 28.

With an executive committee of eight. So I have a really good focus group six times a year that lets me know whether we’re being effective. But as an organization, we really set clear goals on our policy goals and other best practice programs that we have to measure outcomes. And so we have a great way to just listen to our members to make sure we’re effective.

David Martin: And you have 120 people to let you know if you’re not.

Matthew D. Chase: And they are elected officials who aren’t shy.

David Martin: Oh, does it turn ugly or is it, you know, is it pretty? Is it pretty pretty? Is it a pretty good, streamlined process?

Matthew D. Chase: It’s a very streamlined process. So as an organization, we reflect counties in what we are focused on are very practical day to day things. For example, we’re launching the Mental Health First Aid Program. We’re launching at this conference a brand new national campaign called Operation Green Light for Veterans. So the week of Veteran’s Day, we’re going to ask all the counties to light up their courthouses green that week, we’re asking residents to put a green light bulb in their porch. And we’re going to build campaigns to help welcome our veterans and their families into our communities and make sure they’re aware of county services through our county veterans service officers, to know the communities open to them. And they have resources to help those transitioning to civilian life.

David Martin: And when will this be.

Matthew D. Chase: Well, our board approved it today. And so it’ll be Veterans Week in November of this year. And it’s just one example. Get your green light.

David Martin: Use lights out.

Matthew D. Chase: So and so.

David Martin: We’ve seen a lot of green lights. We know you’ve done a good job.

Matthew D. Chase: Exactly.

David Martin: Kathy, another yardstick to measure your success by.

Matthew D. Chase: And we’ll have a major Fortune 50 company helping us to deploy those.

David Martin: So thinking about the people that are served by a county government or other governments. What should people look for? What should they use as a yardstick to know if the government was effective for them?

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah. So let me back up just a quick second. And what makes counties different than cities as as being an administrative arm of the state? 90% of a county budget is preprogrammed through state and federal mandates before the local elected officials even get to make any decisions on what they’re going to invest in. Okay. So the first thing is to recognize that the elected officials don’t have as much flexibility is probably the average resident thinks.

They just see that property tax bill or they pay sales tax and they think, oh, those elected officials get to do what they want. The vast majority of that money is preprogramed. And so I think that’s the one thing that I really want folks to understand, is there are significant constraints put on us by the state legislatures, the governors, state constitutions.

And that, I think, isn’t really taught in school.

David Martin: Okay. So if people don’t like what they see, if they if they feel like they aren’t getting those services that they deserve or that they want or they don’t think governs living up to their expectations. What should people do about that?

Matthew D. Chase: Absolutely. Get engaged. Call. Call your elected official, whether it’s your county commissioner or your your treasurer, your clerk. But to engage and I think the most successful residents are those that show up with a solution. So if something isn’t working and you have a better idea, offer it. I think just being critical and might not be as effective, but if you have a solution and also try and understand the context.

A lot of counties now have citizen cores where they bring citizens in to shadow their staff or to go through kind of a tutorial and on the rules and regulations that we have to abide by. And I think just understanding the context of what these counties are doing.

David Martin: So you’re not an elected official, but you are involved in government, and government is not always pretty. Government can be messy.

Matthew D. Chase: That’s designed to be messy. Right.

David Martin: Explain that.

Matthew D. Chase: Well, whether it’s the US Constitution or how counties are formed with checks and balances. Counties are in dictatorships. You have lots of layers. You have essentially executive, legislative and judicial branches. You’ve got independent elected officials. And they were designed to make sure the public interest is served, not individuals interest. And so one of the things that we’re really trying to remind people is what is the public good?

And it’s not always about one person or two people. It’s about what is the best for the society, in this case, a county government or a county as a community.

David Martin: What else would you like people to know about government, about, you know, the conversations that happen between board members and between, you know, the inner workings of government. What would you like people to know about that process that they probably don’t know anything about at all?

Matthew D. Chase: Well, I think it’s to remember that the overwhelming, vast majority of individuals that get involved in government, whether it’s career professionals or elected officials, are doing it to better their community. They all have different visions of what that means. But they’re not entering public service with ill intent. They’re there to make their the people and the places that they serve better than they found them.

That doesn’t doesn’t mean that there’s bureaucracy and there’s things that people don’t agree with, including people within the government. But really remembering that people are starting with the best of intentions.

David Martin: There is a perception that that’s not always true. How do you combat that?

Matthew D. Chase: Well, just by delivering better services, by actually delivering for your residents. And I think it’s something that has been there since the beginning of time. I don’t know that you can combat it just with words. I think you have to do it through actions.

David Martin: So I want to wrap this up with some good news. Can you give me one or two of your favorite examples recently of really effective, good government?

Matthew D. Chase: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we have literally thousands of ideas that we’re showcasing here from little micro innovations that counties are doing. Two big ones. Great examples with the pandemic where we obviously didn’t have the broadband access and speeds and capabilities that we wanted. Places like Boone County, Kentucky, went to work very quickly with private industry to find out what areas of the county were underserved.

And they’re now bringing gigabit speeds to these underserved communities. Those residents already paid for broadband access. The county is helping upgrade those speeds and the key is that counties very rarely accomplish something by themselves. We’re collaborative. We’re partnering with nonprofits, with residents, with the private sector. And the key to our success is partnerships.

And so I think that is a great example in Boone County.

David Martin: Great I think you’ve answered all the questions I had about the. Thanks very much for this good time here at the convention.

Matthew D. Chase: Thank you.

David Martin: Certainly lots to pick up and lots of good stories to come. Thank you for your leadership and thank you for joining us today.

Matthew D. Chase: Thank you.

David Martin: That was Matt Chase with an excellent lesson in civics, a fascinating look at how government is supposed to work. Join us again for our good government show extras. And for season two, the government show.

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The Good Government Show is produced by Valley Park Productions. Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers. Jason Stershic is our producer and editor. Some transcriptions were done by Kofi Ajeasi Ampah. Our hosts are me, David Martin and Carol D’Auria. Join us again for the Good Government Show, wherever you listen to podcasts.