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Four proposals for reforming county government

By Scott Tibbs, December 29, 2011

The Evansville Courier reported on four proposals by Governor Mitch Daniels for reforming county government. The proposals and my reaction are below. (All text in the bullet points is quoted from the Courier.)

  • Allowing counties to switch their executive structure from three-member groups of commissioners to a single county commissioner.

At first, this did not seem to make sense, because the legislative authority in county government is very unusual. The county council is the fiscal body, while the commissioners are the legislative body. You cannot very well have only one person deciding legislation by himself. There would not even be a need for any votes.

But Daniels mentioned in his speech (download here) making county government more like other forms of government and strengthening the county council, so this would almost certainly involve moving legislative authority from the commissioners to the council. The Courier did a poor job of explaining the proposal.

  • Abolishing three-member township advisory boards that oversee township trustees' budgets and bumping their fiscal oversight duties up to county councils.

I disagree with this proposal. It is fine to give the county council more oversight but the township boards are in a better position to decide the township budget than the county council. This is an anti-democratic proposal that will actually reduce oversight by taking eyes off the township budget.

It also takes away local control by having it more centralized. Here in Monroe County, I am sure folks in conservative Washington Township would much rather have their township board deciding their budget than having the folks in the much more liberal Bloomington and Perry Townships having authority over them through the representatives they elect to the county council. (See township board duties here.)

  • Eliminating nepotism that is, the ability for local elected officials to hire their relatives to do the area's work.

This is a good idea that is long overdue. It is long past time to professionalize local government and this is a step in the right direction. But it does not go far enough. The next step should be restrictions on patronage employment. The taxpayers are best served when people are hired on merit instead of politics and family relations.

  • Restricting "conflicts of interest," or situations where those who are paid by local government, such as police, firefighters, park employees and more, also serve on the councils that set their budgets.

While I see the reasoning for this proposal, I am not sure this is necessarily something that needs to be codified into state law. I am distrustful of any proposal that seeks to limit the choice of voters to elect whomever they please. Government employment is public record in the state of Indiana, and the voters are free to not elect someone who they believe has an unacceptable conflict of interest. Furthermore, it is often local government employees who are most knowledgeable about the operations of local government and are in the best position to make informed choices.

A more modest reform would be better. Instead of banning people from being elected completely, pass a law that legally requires any government employee to recuse himself on votes regarding the policy or budget of his department.

These proposals represent an ambitious agenda, especially for a short session during a year where we will elect a new governor. Even with the Republicans holding big majorities in both chambers, it will not be easy to get this done. Everyone should think about these proposals and express your opinion to your legislators.