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Reforming local government

By Scott Tibbs, January 7, 2011

Gov. Mitch Daniels has placed reforming county government on the top of his legislative agenda for 2011, and that is something that has needed to be done for a long time. I just hope that this reform goes farther than the proposals by Daniels, because more reforms are needed to enhance accountability in local government. Here are my proposals.

First, the executive, legislative and budgetary functions of county government should be modeled after city government. A single elected county commissioner would act as a county executive while the legislative and budgetary functions of government would fall to the county council. That system works fine in city, state and federal government, so there is no reason not to implement that structure in county government.

Second, elected county department heads should be appointed, just as they are in the city. Offices like Auditor, Treasurer, Surveyor and Assessor are skill positions. Too often, elected officials decide to make their offices a personal political fiefdom and fill the office though nepotism, patronage and cronyism rather than what is needed to do the work, and we have seen the result. Obviously, there will still be patronage if the elected positions are appointed instead of elected, but it would be one step removed from political pressures.

Third, there are positions that are not elected that need to be elected. City and county planning commissions are at the top of this list. You have a number of people who are making public policy decisions but are not accountable to the voters for their decisions. That needs to change, and there is no better time than now to change it. People who make decisions on what we can do with our property should be accountable through the ballot box.

I'm not convinced that eliminating township government is a good idea. The township trustee is often the last resort for people who are about to run out of food or have their utilities shut off. Would these services be as effective if they were centralized into one department in county government? Can a county poor relief department function as quickly as a township trustee? Would this require an entirely new county bureaucracy?

Would county government be able to effectively manage the various fire departments in the townships, and how would they be merged into a single county fire department? Which department within county government would handle fire protection, or would we need a new one? There are concerns about some townships heavily subsidizing fire protection for other townships, so this should be addressed as well.

There is no question reform is needed. Let's get it done in 2011.