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If Big Brother's going to watch, he should watch everybody

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County's decision to exempt elected officials from tracking is a mistake

Thursday, October 11, 2012 - 7:12 am

Nothing undermines the respect for authority quite like those who refuse to live under the rules they impose on others.

After more than three years of planning, unfortunately, the three Allen County Commissioners – two of them, anyway – have chosen to exempt themselves and other elected officials from a program intended to evaluate the need for county-owned vehicles and, just maybe, save taxpayers some money.

The fact that only Commissioner Linda Bloom and Surveyor Al Frisinger are affected by the recent decision is beside the point. As dissenting Commissioner Nelson Peters noted, “What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander.” County Councilman Darren Vogt, whose vote helps determine how many vehicles the county can afford each year, was less poetic but more direct:

“(Elected officials) should be setting an example for the employees under them,” he said.

Unfortunately, the decision to keep elected officials’ cars free of the tracking devices being installed on about 230 other vehicles sets a powerful example. Way back in 2009, after all, the commissioners approved a $10,000 plan to equip 20 vehicles with global positioning systems (GPS) on a rotating basis.

Coming just three years after a Health Department executive bought GPS devices in response to employees’ misuse of vehicles, the commissioners’ original intent seemed to be the imposition of honesty, not efficiency.

With County Council constantly seeking savings in response to declining property taxes, however, Peters said wider use of the GPS will also help illustrate whether the county can make do with fewer vehicles and the money needed to buy, operate and maintain them. At a total cost of about $70,000, the units will create a record of where and how often the vehicles are used – possibly justifying further reductions in the county’s fleet, which contained about 430 vehicles just nine years ago.

Both Peters and Commissioner Therese Brown, who joined Bloom in support of the exemption for elected officials, own their own vehicles. Neither Brown nor Bloom was available to explain their vote, but Bloom’s use of her county-owned car has raised eyebrows at least once before.

In 2002, she was driving her Chevrolet Impala on U.S. 30 near Warsaw when she was ticketed for speeding. Bloom initially said she was meeting with other officials – a claim unsupported by Kosciusko County officials. Bloom later said she was inspecting bridges there to investigate designs that might be used in Allen County. Official business often took her outside the county, Bloom said at the time.

Frisinger likewise sees no need to justify his county-owned Chevrolet Trail Blazer, saying his duties require him to review drainage issues countywide and often require out-of-town trips.

“I’m not sure what purpose tracking would serve,” he said.

As I wrote in May, there are legitimate reasons to question the county’s widespread use of GPS devices (which are already common in city-owned vehicles to improve “work flow efficiency,” according to spokesman John Perlich). Beyond a certain creepy “Big Brother” aspect, the county has already demonstrated its ability to winnow its fleet without the use of expensive, invasive electronics.

But if the county is going to go down that road – and it is – elected officials should be treated no better or worse than the employees they supervise. Nobody is forcing Bloom or Frisinger to take a county car, after all. (Employees who drive their own are reimbursed for official business.)

Vogt, in fact, questions the county’s previous decision to exempt police cars and other public-safety vehicles from its GPS policy. Although GPS on some individuals’ cars (such as Prosecutor Karen Richards) may compromise security and safety, there’s no reason to exempt marked police cars, Vogt insisted – especially when officers can use their take-home cars and county-provided fuel to earn off-duty income.

City police vehicles are equipped with GPS, Chief Rusty York, said, in order to protect officers’ safety. Mayor Tom Henry is the only elected city official with a car and it is not GPS-equipped. Perhaps it should be, too.

In a three-member office, it is often necessary to forge alliances and make compromises. And perhaps it is just coincidental that, unlike Peters, Brown and Bloom are not facing the voters Nov. 6. But few motives could be worth the sacrifice of openness and consistency epitomized by the commissioners’ action.

If the commissioners don’t want their political gooses cooked, in other words, they should take another gander at what they have done – and can still undo.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.