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.

Nepotism at the Township Level: Monroe County Edition

More evidence Indiana needs HB 1005 to pass to start cracking down on township government abuse. RTV6 has the story:

The State Board of Accounts is demanding a former Monroe County township trustee repay more than $95,000 after an audit revealed questionable expenditures involving family members.

Benton Township Trustee Heather Cohee stepped down last week amid criticism that she hired her husband and daughter to perform tens of thousands of dollars of work for the township without proper documentation.

The Attorney General’s Office told RTV6 on Monday that it will likely file a civil lawsuit against Cohee to recover the public funds, as well as a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order to freeze her financial assets.

According to the audit, Cohee hired her husband, Todd, also a Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy, to perform jobs such as cemetery mowing, parking lot paving, snow removal and landscaping.

Auditors said she also hired her daughter, Brittany, to do regular cleanings for the township, but the trustee had little documentation to support where the money actually went.

Todd Cohee served as the Township Clerk and Brittany Cohee served as the Township Assistance Clerk.

Auditors said Heather Cohee repeatedly did not file a conflict of interest statement for her husband or her daughter, which is a Class D felony.

Heather Cohee was unavailable Monday to discuss her resignation or the audit with RTV6.

Daniele Coe is handing the books for now, while the township board figures out the next steps.

"I don’t have a comment on what has gone on, but I know the board is doing everything it can to make sure business goes on as usual," Coe said.

Board member Lynn Stevens told RTV6 that the board would do everything possible to get the taxpayers’ money back, and said they scheduled an emergency meeting Monday night to discuss options.

Supporting the Arts on Others’ Dime (Lots of Dimes)

Let’s be clear: Carmel’s Palladium performing arts center is a good thing, adding to the quality of life for residents of the Hamilton County city and surrounding areas. A township trustee spending $10,000 in taxpayer money so he, township board members and their guests could enjoy the grand opening is the latest in a long line of reasons to do away with this outdated form of government.

The key phrase is "taxpayer money." Which makes the following comments all the more ridiculous. The trustee told WRTV-Channel 6, "From my standpoint, it was the right thing to do." The township board chairman adds, "We view this as supporting the arts in Carmel."

The Indianapolis Star editorial on Saturday stated in part:

Keep in mind that poor relief is one of the purported purposes of township government. But tuxedoed patron of the arts? Not on the official list of a township trustee’s duties.

(Trustee Douglas) Callahan, however, was unrepentant in an interview with The Star’s Chris Sikich. He even tried to argue that township officials have been picked on by powerful forces. "People are throwing us to the dogs constantly, from the (Indiana) Chamber of Commerce to the media to the governor’s office,” he said.

The state chamber, the governor and the editorial boards of 16 Indiana newspapers, along with dozens of other officials and organizations, have indeed been critical of township government. But their complaints aren’t so much with the people who fill township offices as with the system in which they operate. Even if every existing township official were to be replaced with people of impeccable judgment and integrity, the township system still would be antiquated, inefficient and unnecessary.

And although Callahan and the township board members exercised poor judgment in using tax dollars to buy tickets to a fancy celebration, the more significant outrage is that Indiana’s townships are collectively hoarding at least $295 million in public money while fewer people in need receive assistance.

Really, it’s time for reform. It won’t happen, however, unless Hoosiers speak up and demand it. Need more convincing. Check out MySmartGov

UPDATE: Upon advice of the Clay Township Attorney, who also happens to be House Speaker Brian Bosma, township officials have decided to do the right thing and return the $10,000 used on Palladium tickets.

Township Reform: Let’s Hear It For Policy Over Politics

A 90-minute Wednesday session titled Policy Over Politics: A Forum on Township Reform contained a seemingly never-ending supply of valuable information. Enough so that more than a few of the several hundred attendees could be heard at the end muttering something along the lines of (I paraphrase), "Why is this even an issue? Just do away with the townships and let’s move on."

Gov. Mitch Daniels opened the educational program, saying that it most definitely is time to reverse the "politics over policy" reality that has dominated the past few years. Below is a highlight or two from each of the presenters:

  • IUPUI political scientist Bill Blomquist noted there have only been about a dozen studies on local government reform over the past century and describes the historical aspect as a tension between 200-year-old Jacksonian democracy (elect everyone to short terms and make them accountable) and the later Progressive Era reform and its concept of government not being too complicated for the voters
  • The Indianapolis Star opinion editor Tim Swarens says he served on a panel on this topic eight or nine years ago, but that sometimes you just have to teach over and over. He quickly dispatched the various counter arguments township officials try to use to justify their existence
  • Louis Mahern, former state senator and member of the 2007 Kernan-Shepard Commission on Local Government Reform, also spoke. We could — and have in the past — done entire stories on his knowledge and passion in this area. For today, he points out that it comes down to the "money going for inefficient township government or libraries, or parks, or public safety, or pools …"
  • Martha Lamkin, longtime education and philanthropy leader: "It’s well past the time for elevating our poor relief to 21st century standards of accountability and transparency." She emphasizes the ridiculous nature of whether someone qualifies for poor relief being determined 1,000 different ways — township by township
  • Steve Campbell, former Indianapolis deputy mayor, advises to avoid the rhetoric. Efforts to modernize Marion County government while Bart Peterson was mayor were not a power grab, didn’t result in people dying (after fire department mergers began) and didn’t cost any state legislators their jobs
  • Mark Miles, Central Indiana Corporate Partnership president, closed with "every layer of government is being forced to do more with less, yet townships manage to do less with more" and this classic that he said he was told earlier in the day: Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time the quo has lost its status

Bottom line: get involved; contact your legislators; learn more at

Shaking up the Elections: Saturday Night’s Alright for Voting

Why did Indiana and other states establish township government back in the 1850s? Because of the farming economy and the need for people to travel by horse and buggy to conduct government business. Why are elections held on Tuesday? Same reason.

The Indiana Chamber and its partners have repeatedly pointed out over the last six-plus years that township government needs to go — for a variety of reasons. Check some of them out at MySmartGov. Now, election reform advocates are saying Tuesday votes are a relic and at least one of the reasons the U.S. ranks a staggering 140th globally in voter participation.

Here’s part of a recent Governing article on making the switch to Saturday elections. It, combined with vote centers, might make sense. Thoughts?

“Voting on Tuesday is the No. 1 remaining burden to voter participation,” says Jacob Soboroff, executive director of Why Tuesday?, a national nonpartisan group that advocates weekend voting. “Moving Election Day to the weekend is the single biggest thing we can do in our country to get more people involved in the political process.”

When Congress was trying to establish a national Election Day in 1845, the biggest concern was accommodating an agrarian society. Farmers needed a day to travel to the county seat, a day to vote and a day to return home. Ruling out days of worship left Tuesday and Wednesday, but Wednesday was typically market day. So, Tuesday it was.

Few Americans still rely on a horse and buggy to get to the voting booth. In today’s urban society, reform advocates say, Tuesday voting is more a hassle than a convenience. In recent years, expanded early voting periods and no-excuse-needed absentee voting in many states have made it easier to cast a ballot without missing work. But what’s really needed, these reformers argue, is a full-out shift to Saturday voting.

Voters in one jurisdiction will get to experiment with weekend voting next year. Last month, San Francisco residents overwhelmingly approved a measure to open polls for the November 2011 election on Tuesday and the previous Saturday. “We’re trying to engage more people in the democratic process,” says Alex Tourk, a local political affairs consultant who spearheaded the effort. “It’s not rocket science to hold an election on a day when most people aren’t working.”

Still, there are complications. Since the San Francisco pilot project essentially establishes two full election days, there’s an added cost to the city. Tourk must cover those expenditures by raising funds from private sources — but establishing what those costs are will be tricky.

Saturday voting won’t be the norm anytime soon. But San Francisco’s experiment could provide some interesting insights into what happens when people don’t have to choose between voting and putting in a full day at the office. Weekend voting may ultimately not change anything, but given America’s bottom-of-the-barrel turnout rates, it sure can’t hurt. 

Enact Government Reform Now with Legislature’s Authority

Some legislators have announced their intentions of taking the road of less resistance to achieving local government reform by punting it to the voters for county-by-county referendums.

The Indiana Chamber strongly opposes such actions as it is fully within the authority of the Legislature to make all of the recommendations by the Kernan-Shepard Commission (except for the one concerning the constitutionally required election of certain county officials).

Why do legislators single out local government structural issues to go to a referendum? Primarily because it provides cover for their friends in local government at home and tends to make it less controversial. There are many reasons why there shouldn’t be voter referendums for the local government reform legislation.  For one, a county-by-county referendum would result in a hodgepodge of governmental structures, making things worse than they are now. Our voters elect legislators to represent them in the General Assembly and deliberate on hard issues and make tough decisions, not to pass the buck. Local government tends to be invisible to many citizens. To educate them on the nuances of Indiana’s complicated system of local government is a massive and costly process that can and should be avoided. The Chamber will be working with its allies to ensure referendums related to local government do not pass.

In Gov. Daniels’ recent State of the State address, he said, "The largest and most momentous of our opportunities lies in the area of governmental reform. The cost in dollars, confusion and just plain bad government of our 150-year-old system is by now completely beyond dispute. … The hour for action has arrived."

We encourage you to visit to learn more about the issues and what you can do. You can also locate and contact your legislators here.

* This is an excerpt from our weekly Legislative Report. Indiana Chamber members receive the full report each Friday during the General Assembly session.

MySmartgov Enthused Over Assessor Referendum Results

Inside INdiana Business has the good news today regarding MySmartgov’s success on Election Day. Many voters in the state supported moving township assessing duties to the counties — a move that was encouraged by the Kernan-Shepard Report and supported by the Indiana Chamber.

Voters in 31 of the 43 townships where township assessors still existed called for uniform assessments and fair taxation yesterday by voting to eliminate township assessors.

“Voters across the state cried ‘Enough!’ loudly and clearly,” said Marilyn Schultz, executive director of, an organization formed to advocate for streamlined local government. “Their votes were a resounding call for change in the antiquated, redundant and unfair way that property has been assessed in Indiana for far too long.”

The decisive vote is an unambiguous sign to members of the General Assembly that Hoosiers want to update and streamline their local government, most of which was established to meet 19th-century needs. Lawmakers will be asked during the upcoming legislative session to enact additional reforms recommended by the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform.

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Vote “Yes” to Transfer Township Assessor Duties to County

We’ve sung the praises of MySmartGov before, but just want to reiterate the importance of the Township Assessor question by referencing the site, which outlines why this is such an important subject for taxpayers:

Until recently, property in Indiana was assessed by 1,008 township assessors in 1,008 different ways. Some assessors’ work may have been impeccable, but the taxpayers in their townships still may have been paying more than their fair share of taxes because of the less competent job by an assessor down the road.

In fact, a 2005 study by the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute found that 80 percent of the townships did not meet international standards for uniformity. The assessments were well outside the accepted error rate of plus or minus 15 percent – that is, international standards say it is acceptable for a $100,000 house to be assessed anywhere from $85,000 to $115,000.

Our advice: You want to vote "Yes" on the ballot question, "Should the assessing duties of the elected township assessor in the township be transferred to the county assessor?"

But will you even be able to vote on this important initiative? Check here to see if your township will be voting on the matter.

Marion County Assessor Pens Scathing Column on Township Assessing Process

Yesterday’s Indianapolis Star featured a column by Marion County Assessor Greg Bowes articulating the fundamental problems plaguing Indiana’s township assessments. Here are some highlights, but please take the time to read the entire piece as it is quite illuminating:

 I was elected county assessor, and began my first term on Jan. 1, 2007. I did not receive the assessments from the townships until after Jan. 31, 2007, more than seven months late. When I did receive them, not one of the nine township assessors had done the assessments correctly. In fact, the governor ordered reassessment in part because the township assessors made no changes in more than 70 percent of the commercial properties in Marion County, and this after a four-year period where no revisions were mandated.

When the reassessment was completed, an additional 30 percent in commercial value was identified, and massive changes were made in the residential properties in at least two of the nine townships. The reassessment injected a third bill into our tax year, and delayed the normal cycle by eight months. No wonder the mortgage companies are confused …

On the Nov. 4 ballot is a public question we must all consider seriously. It will read: "Should the assessing duties of the elected township assessor in the township be transferred to the county assessor?" If taxpayers want their assessments done correctly and on time, they should vote "yes."

Again, read the full column; get involved in helping make this much-needed reform a reality.