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2011 election disaster demonstrates need for reform

By Scott Tibbs, November 18, 2011

Last week, the Bloomington city election was an unmitigated disaster. For the 2012 election, we can cross our fingers and hope that it works better, and the public will need to provide oversight to ensure that this mess does not happen again. But going forward, this demonstrates that we need to fundamentally reform county government in Indiana.

What we need to do is amend the Indiana constitution to change several elected positions into appointed positions. Maybe it made sense in 1816 to have positions like coroner, clerk, auditor, treasurer, assessor, recorder elected by the voters. This does not make sense in 2011, and has not made sense for several decades. It is time to professionalize county government by having these administrative positions be appointed.

Right now, county government is divided into political fiefdoms run by multiple elected officials. City government, meanwhile, has a single elected administrator who appoints department heads. County government should be structured along the same lines as city government, with formerly elected positions appointed by the county commissioners.

This would help reduce the influence of politics and the patronage that goes along with it. City government is not immune to patronage, of course. There will always be patronage in government, especially in local government. But if administrative positions become appointed department heads, that would move it one level away from the winds of local politics, and county employees would also be a little more insulated from political tides.

We have seen the results of having administrative positions filled by electoral politics instead of hired based on merit. When a Democratic tide swept Monroe County in 2004, Sandy Newman was elected county auditor, and her tenure was such a disaster that she lost in a landslide in the 2008 Democratic primary - after several Democratic elected officials had called on her to resign a year earlier. County clerk Linda Robbins was also elected because she had a (D) next to her name, and we saw last week how that turned out.

It would not be fair to lump all of the elected administrators together. While there are bad administrators, there are elected officials all over the state who have served for decades in various administrative positions with distinction, and would be the most logical person to hire if their position flipped from elected to appointed. However, it remains true that the best way to attract the best people for a skill position is not to have the voters decide every fourth November.

There are downsides. If we are going to professionalize county government, it will probably become more expensive to hire skilled and experienced administrators. For example, the Monroe County auditor makes $53,778 per year, while the Bloomington city controller makes $75,725. If the county expects to attract a qualified professional auditor, the auditor's salary is going to have to be closer to the controller's salary. County government already struggles with how to pay for everything, so this will require some tough choices when budgets are written and passed.

The reality is we are living with a system that is several decades out of date. The people of Indiana need to know that their government works and that we have competent people in positions of authority. Elitist as this may sound, voters are not qualified to make those decisions, any more than they are qualified to decide who is hired as a plant manager at a Ford factory. This needs to be one of the biggest issues for candidates for state legislature and governor in 2012. Those candidates should be expected to take a position on reforming local government.