Solving the Local Government Puzzle

One of the more legendary figures in Indiana newspaper history is Jim Barbieri, who spent more than 50 years at the Bluffton News-Banner. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Barbieri several times during his career that carried far beyond the publication he guided and into the communities it served.

I do not know Mark Miller, current president and publisher of the News-Banner. But his column in Monday’s edition nails the local government reform debate on the head. It makes it clear that communities, whether big or small, and citizens are victimized by the current structure and modernization is mandatory. Barbieri undoubtedly would be proud, and lawmakers should take notice.

Below is a summary; here is a link to the full column.

It’s clear to me that the argument that these administrative and technical offices — the treasurer, auditor, clerk, assessor, coroner, surveyor and recorder — “answer to the voters” is empty nonsense. Voters cannot be there every day to ensure things are getting done. Voters cannot decipher who is at fault when two key offices cannot cooperate over a number of years. Voters are not in a position to make these judgments.

Voters can select and monitor leaders. Voters cannot supervise day-to-day details.

It’s clear to me that, short of a constitutional convention (a long shot indeed), it is politically impossible to put most of the Kernan-Shepherd proposals into practice, at least in one swoop. Too many turfs being covered, too many worried about re-election.

There is an argument to let the voters decide, to put out a proposal to go from three commissioners to one or not, to appoint or elect department office heads and see what the public wants. But years ago, our ancestors didn’t get to vote on government structure. There is an argument that it’s way too complicated to put on a ballot.

And inertia — the resistance to change the way things are — is a pretty powerful force.