FROM THE DESK OF SENATOR DAVID LONG

There has been a lot of discussion in the news lately about the charter government legislation (which I am carrying in the Senate) which would allow a county like Allen to study, and potentially implement, a new form of local government. Such a concept exists only in one county in Indiana, which of course is Marion County, where UniGov has been in place for over 30 years now. However, unlike UniGov, which was simply implemented by the Legislature without public input, any recommendation for a new form of local government here would have to first be approved by the voters of Allen County.

The idea of Charter Government was first floated 11 years ago by Senator Tom Wyss. It went nowhere, because there was no consensus in Fort Wayne, or elsewhere, to see it happen. At that time, the City of Fort Wayne represented 55% of the overall county population. The local economic picture was strong, our local governments were fiscally healthy, and our local elected officials were in complete disagreement about the concept.

Today, the picture is quite different. When the Aboite annexation occurs in 2006, the City’s share of the overall county population will rise to 75%. Our local economy is struggling, as it is all over Indiana. The fiscal picture for our local governmental entities is dismal, particularly for the County, where the costs of the criminal justice system continue to rise while revenues shrink. That is a recipe for disaster. The City is also feeling the fiscal pressure, particularly as a result of the costs it faces to pay for the endless line of annexations, but also because its revenues are substantially diminished as a result of the recession. Finally, we have some new elected officials, as well as old ones, who are now receptive to talking about changing the way we govern ourselves.

Remember, our county government system dates back 150 years, to a time when we were an agrarian society, and the pressures of modern urban life, particularly the criminal justice problems of today, were non-existent. It seems appropriate to take another look at our local governmental system after all these years to see if we can’t come up with a better way to govern ourselves; a 21st century style of government, if you please.

The beauty of the Charter Government concept is that it presumes absolutely nothing about how this new government structure would look. It doesn’t assume that we will change anything about our government, nor does it assume that we wouldn’t change everything. The shape and form of any modernizations would be up to the Commission that would be created, and the Commission’s recommendation would in turn have to be approved by the voters.

So how would this Commission be formed? There would be two ways to do it. First, a resolution by both the County Council and the City Council would be required, seeking to create a Charter Government Commission. Also, a petition signed by approximately 5% of the registered voters who voted in the last Secretary of State’s race (this is a common measure used by the State in referendums ) could also trigger the creation of a Commission.

 

Once the petition was validated, the Commission would be put together as follows:

Each of the following would have five appointments: The Mayor of Ft. Wayne, the Ft. Wayne City Council, the County Commissioners, and the County Council. Also, the Mayors of all third class cities in Allen County would have one appointment, (the 3rd class cities are New Haven, Woodburn, and Huntertown), as would the 3rd class city councils. The township trustees would have two appointments, and the township assessors would have one. This 25 member Commission would then proceed down a regimented, precise, highly public path that would take about 21 months to conclude, after which a proposal from the Commission would be certified to the County Auditor for a vote at the next county general election.

The soonest such a vote could occur in Allen County would be November 2006. Of course, that assumes that legislation can be passed out of the General Assembly, and signed by the Governor, to allow this process to get underway. Just because we here in Allen County might favor the opportunity to create our own form of government doesn’t mean that concept is shared by the rest of the State. In fact, the Indiana Township Trustees Association and the Indiana Township Assessors Association are completely up in arms over the idea, not because the legislation presumes to threaten their jobs, but because the idea of change is threatening to them altogether. You see Township Trustees and Township Assessors have been under fire of late because this form of government is perceived by some to be inefficient and duplicative in nature. Because of this, the Trustees and Assessors are now dedicated to defeating any legislation that could conceivably lead to their demise, even bills like the Charter Government legislation that does not presume any such demise. Their theory is “once you let the camel’s nose under the tent, there is no going back”.

I personally do not believe that we should do away with Township government, because what may seem duplicative in a large urban area like ours might be the best way to deliver services in rural areas. However, we might decide in Allen County to revise the duties of Trustees and Assessors, keep them the way they are, or do away with them. That would be up to the Commission and the voters of Allen County to decide. Personally, however, I see a future role for the Trustees in our governmental system, though that role could well be changed from what it is today.

As you read this article, the debate continues in the Indiana Senate over this concept. Hopefully, we will be allowed to follow our own path here in Allen County, and perhaps set the example for the rest of the State on what can be achieved by a county whose residents see a better and brighter future ahead, and are willing to change things in order to achieve that future.

The Waynedale News Staff
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Tom Hayhurst

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