Reactions to Local Government Reform Progress Mixed

It’s no secret the Indiana Chamber is a strong proponent of local government reform, and we’re directly involved with MySmartGov. Although we’re encouraged that legislation curbing nepotism in local government passed this year, to this point the going has been rather slow in getting Indiana legislators to eliminate duplication at the township level. The Indiana Economic Digest has an interesting article on the topic, relaying how the gentlemen who created the Kernan-Shepard Report — the document that initially stated the case for reform — don’t see the progress thus far as being entirely negative.

Getting property tax bills out on time may not seem like a headline-grabber, but for supporters of a sweeping government reform effort, it’s big news.

Four years ago, not a single county in Indiana hit the deadline for sending out tax bills that generate revenues needed to keep the gears of local government moving. The following year, only two did.

Last year, 90 of Indiana’s 92 counties made the deadline.

The difference has saved cities and schools millions in interest payments on tax anticipation loans while waiting for their counties to collect and hand over tax dollars.

State finance officials credit the dollars saved to a recommendation made in December 2007 by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

The bipartisan commission spent months coming up with a road map to streamline local government. In a report that called for sweeping changes, it issued 27 recommendations — including the one that led to the consolidation of township assessors under the county and a shift to more professional assessment standards.

But only about one-third of those 27 recommendations have come to fruition since.

That’s not enough for Gov. Mitch Daniels, who created the commission. Talking to reporters Monday — just two days after the Indiana General Assembly closed Daniels’ last legislative session — the governor bemoaned the fact that much of the bipartisan commission’s recommendations have met a bipartisan wall in the Legislature.

“I continue to be disappointed that we didn’t get more than one-third done,” Daniels said.

That’s not how one of the men who headed the commission’s work sees it, though.

Retiring Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard is the Republican who co-chaired what became known as the “Kernan-Shepard commission” with former Gov. Joe Kernan, a Democrat.

He thinks progress on local government reform has been impressive, given the resistance to change a system put largely in place before Indiana became a state.

Shepard recalls a conversation with commission members just as they were getting ready to release the 2007 report that called for virtually eliminating township government while consolidating hundreds of school and library districts and imposing new rules for financial accountability.

One member said it would be a “miracle” if everything in the report got done. Shepard said the response from another commission member was: “‘It’ll be a miracle if anything gets done.’”

So in Shepard’s estimation, getting one-third done “is a pretty good outcome.”

In the session that just ended, lawmakers passed a bill with roots in the Kernan-Shepard recommendations: Aimed at eliminating conflicts of interest and reducing nepotism in local government, it bars a local government employee from taking office as an elected official of the government he or she works for. It also bans a local government employee from supervising a relative in a local government job.

Similar legislation failed in past sessions.

Governor to Support Overdue Government Reforms

The Indiana Chamber and MySmartGov have been champions of sensible government reform in Indiana, and have supported suggestions from the Kernan-Shepard Report that would eliminate townships, among other excesses. The Evansville Courier & Press now reports Governor Mitch Daniels will firmly put his weight behind these measures in the 2012 session:

Gov. Mitch Daniels will make one last push for local government reforms – this time, a select and scaled-back set of them – during the final legislative session of his administration, he announced Friday.

Daniels unveiled his legislative agenda for the Indiana General Assembly’s 10-week 2012 session, which starts Jan. 4, during a speech at the Kiwanis Club of Indianapolis.

He said he will lobby for structural changes at both the township and county levels, as well a crackdown on conflicts of interest among municipal workers who also sit on the elected bodies that set the budgets for their employers.

It’s another try at implementing more of the recommendations offered in 2007 by a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall Shepard.

This year, as freshman Rep. Kevin Mahan, R-Hartford City takes over the chairmanship of the House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee, Daniels said he believes the conditions are right for more progress than he has made in the past.

“We’re going to try to approach it in a little simpler way,” Daniels said.

He said he hopes four local government changes that have stalled out in previous sessions can gain more traction this year. Those four are:

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

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

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

– 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.

“I think if we could get action on two, three, four fronts like those, this would be good. Those are some important reforms. I’ve always believed that we wouldn’t do this in one or two big gulps; it would have to be an incremental process, and this would get the process moving forward,” he said.

County Assessor Missing (in) Action

When the South Bend Tribune headline reads, "St. Joseph County assessor not seen in office for weeks," one can be fairly confident it’s going to be an interesting story. I wasn’t disappointed.

Although the recent focus has been on townships and how their usefulness has long since gone away in most cases, the original local government efficiency recommendations from the Kernan-Shepard Commission also noted that county officials (like the assessor) should be appointed rather than elected. Wouldn’t that come in handy in this case?

Here’s a brief excerpt below and a link to the full story.

St. Joseph County Assessor David Wesolowski, defeated in his Democratic primary bid this spring for a seventh term, has not been at work since at least mid-April.

Wesolowski confirms that he’s been out of the office for several weeks but says he’s been taking some deserved time off.

"He’s been in hiding," said Dennis Dillman, a member of the Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals, which operates out of the same office as Wesolowski on the third floor of the County-City Building.

Reached by cell phone Friday, Wesolowski explained that he took time off in April to campaign and that he has been on vacation since "for health purposes and everything else, too."

"I’m entitled to that," he said, adding that he has kept in touch with the office by both phone and e-mail and even visited there Wednesday afternoon.

As an elected official, Wesolowski is not required by state law to work a certain number of hours or to report the hours that he does work. He receives no set number of vacation days, personal days or sick days. 

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. 

Consolidation, Buckeye Style

As the township/local government consolidation debate continues in Indiana, the Dayton Business Journal recently featured a similar issue in Ohio. It seems officials in the Dayton area are considering implementing a regional government to help streamline functions and avoid a litany of competing tax structures:

Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley and Dayton City Commissioner Joey Williams both endorsed the idea of having a regional form of government Tuesday morning at the Montgomery County Regional Development Forum.

The officials, panelists at the Dayton Business Journal event, were joined by J.P. Nauseef, a business owner and former economic development leader; Michael Greitzer, a commercial development executive; and Jeff Hoagland, Vandalia city manager.

All five panel members agreed the region needs to move towards a regional economic development approach, with strong central governance. Proponents of regional government say the model would make the Dayton region more attractive to outside investment as well as retaining businesses…

A member of the audience likened the discussions to going on a diet to try and lose weight, in that people always say they will start a diet next week, but never follow through.

“I think the first step is we have issues and to accept that,” Williams said. “We need to accept that we need to lose some weight.”

Township Blues: Post-Trib Takes a Look Back

The Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana took a trip down memory lane this week, looking at the alleged corruption of former Calumet Township Trustee Dozier Allen Jr. Allen drew ire for having many family members and friends on the township payroll, and enjoyed suspicious salary add-ons during his tenure. Throughout the Indiana Chamber’s ongoing stance in favor of township reform, our spokesmen have referenced all too many instances of corruption and nepotism in township government in Indiana. This case is a prime example of that. The Post-Tribune remembers:

The Indiana Township Association reported Calumet Township, made up of Gary, Griffith and the Lake Ridge area, has 134,519 people, while neighboring North Township, including Hammond and East Chicago, serves 157,942 people.

North Township Trustee Greg Cvitkovich doesn’t have as many demands for help as the Calumet Township Trustee, but records show Cvitkovich operates with 53 employees and a $4.5 million budget.

Allen spends almost that much in salaries on his way to a total budget around $14 million.

Records show the Calumet Township Trustee’s office, which provides poor relief to the indigent and homeless, has a payroll bulging with Allen’s friends and family members, as well as heavyweight politicians and their family members.

Allen’s sons, daughter-in-law, cousin and wife have been on his payroll in the last two years.

That’s something Allen readily acknowledges and defends.

"Nepotism may be bothersome to some, but I think relatives have a right to survive like anyone else," he said. "If they’re willing to work a day’s work for a day’s pay, then I don’t see any reason they shouldn’t be treated like any other employees."

UPDATE: Dozier T. Allen and two of his top deputies were found guilty of two counts each of fraud Wednesday for pocketing a combined $140,000 in state grant money during the final years of Allen’s 32-year tenure as Calumet Township Trustee. 

Ouch: Indy Star Takes Bauer, Dems to Task for Squandered Opportunities

And you thought Jon Stewart was giving Jim Cramer a hard time this week.

In an editorial today, the Indy Star Editorial Board takes House Speaker Pat Bauer and opponents of township and education reform to task for letting cronyism trump the needs of the citizenry. It’s straight, to the point, and if you’re looking to close out your week with kittens and rainbows, you might want to look elsewhere. The Star asserts:

This is the time in the long discussion over local government reform in Indiana that we could, justifiably, write an opinion so blistering that young children and other gentle souls would risk life-long consequences if left too long in its presence.

Today, however, we will spare you that stew of scorn and outrage.

It’s not that members of the Indiana House Government and Regulatory Reform Committee don’t deserve strong censure for once again shielding their cronies in township government from public accountability. They most certainly do.

Disapproval, however, should be reserved for those for whom there’s still hope, who have yet to dive willingly into a dark pit, filled to the brim with disdain for the public’s best interests. Observers then would have a responsibility to try to rescue them from their fate.

However, it’s too late for Democrats in the Indiana House, under the authority of Speaker Pat Bauer (we withhold the word leadership). They already have plunged willingly and deeply into that pit. They have, in fact, sunk so low that they now pretend that the muck they have stirred up can be sold to the gullible as a form of preserving "local control.”

Most Hoosiers, however, have smelled both rose petals and cess pools. And they know the difference — no matter what cynical politicians might tell them.

The first two months of the current legislative session have brought a string of decisions so embarrassing that almost any elected leader outside the Indiana House would by force of conscience stand on the corner of Market and Capitol and apologize profusely to every citizen who passed. Thus far, representatives have raided reserves to cobble together a one-year budget (instead of the standard two-year plan), but later handed casinos millions in tax breaks. A moratorium on charter schools was passed when education reform is more necessary than ever. And now local government reform appears dead for another year, even after the commonplace inequities and inefficiencies of townships have been widely exposed.

The long-suffering residents of this good state can find comfort in the fact that Bauer and his troops must depart, by order of state statute, from the Statehouse in another 48 days. The damage they already have done is great, and may be worse still before the end mercifully arrives. But the closing gavel now carries the best hopes for those who value good government and thoughtful leadership.

Township Bill Boosted, Passed by Senate

In a real victory for reforming Indiana’s township government, the Indiana Chamber and allies worked vigorously to improve SB 512 and successfully passed that revised version. As introduced, SB 512 eliminated townships (which is preferred), but to get the bill passed from the Senate Local Government Committee it was greatly watered down.

The day before the final vote before the full Senate, two favorable amendments were added and one bad amendment was defeated. As the amended bill was up for the final vote, the prospects for victory were not good. During the past few weeks, many township officials and their lobbyists (paid for with taxpayers’ dollars) were at the Statehouse in force to apply pressure on their legislators to oppose the bill. With the Daniels’ administration’s team and members of the Chamber-led coalition, we successfully swayed at least five votes to get to the final tally of 28-22 to pass the bill. 

The Chamber wishes to thank Sen. Lawson for her hard work and leadership on getting this bill passed. Senator David Long (R-Fort Wayne) provided leadership of the Republican caucus, where all of the supporting votes came from. We know there are several Democrat senators who would have supported this bill, but were unfortunately not permitted to vote that way.

Indiana Chamber board members and other citizens who contacted legislators to help swing several crucial votes played a critical role in the outcome. Senate Bill 512 is one of the keystone local government efficiency bills from the Kernan-Shepard Commission recommendations. We will work diligently to keep it moving in the House and bring it to a successful conclusion at the end of the session. 

Riding the Government Reform Roller Coaster

The effort to introduce the concepts of efficiency and better service to citizens into Indiana’s local government structure has seen more ups and downs than your favorite ride at Holiday World or any amusement park of your choice.

Following seven-plus weeks of progress, retreat, debate and committee members offering support for the broken-beyond-repair status quo, the full Senate restored teeth to some of the legislation on Tuesday.

Eliminating township boards in 91 counties (why not Marion, we must ask?) would be a tremendous step. Doing away with rampant nepotism and unconsionable levels of budget reserves are also a move in the right direction. Some county, library and election reforms are also in play.

The attention turns to the House, with the ball resting with Speaker Pat Bauer. The nearly 40-year veteran of the Statehouse wars has promised all along to take a look at what comes over from the Senate — and he repeated that pledge to the Indiana Chamber’s executive committee last week. Not an overwhelming endorsement, but there is some optimism. This should not be a partisan issue; all can find a place on the bandwagon for better government. makes the case for change. Indiana Chamber members can get the latest in a March 6 First Friday Conference Call featuring Chamber expert Mark Lawrance and government reform commission member Louis Mahern.

Pals Take Precedence Over Good Policy; Taxpayers are Punished

Colleague Mark Lawrance, the Chamber’s point person on local government reform efforts over the past half-dozen years, started off his description of the ambush of reform efforts in the Indiana Senate this week with an homage to Buffalo Springfield: "There’s Something Happening Here and It Is Exactly Clear."

Lawrance offers a synopsis. First, the opposition to these recommendations is highly focused and mobilized. Second, those special interest groups strongly prefer to keep the status quo and not embrace any of the changes with our fragmented local government system. And third, many of the local people who are involved with townships, county government, libraries and the school systems are also part of the local political system that elects the legislators.
What that means is some members of the Senate are playing political games. They’re ignoring the facts (read Kevin Brinegar’s committee testimony a week earlier or watch the latest video) to protect their cronies. They’re doing so at the expense of your money and your right to an efficient and effective local government system.
Don’t stand for it. Let your legislators know business as usual simply isn’t good enough.