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Let's conduct a rational debate on county structure

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 - 12:01 am

Is it wise to take power from commissioners and give it to council?

If you’re searching for a reason to vote in the primary election in May, try this: “Shall the county government of Allen County be reorganized to place all executive powers in a single county executive and to place all legislative and fiscal powers in the county council?”

That’s the referendum language approved by the General Assembly. You won’t see the question on a ballot until the general election in November, but the primary will give you a chance to vote for candidates based on how they feel about this proposal in particular and changes to government operations in general. If you don’t know where certain candidates stand, you should find out. (And, yes, we’ll do our part to keep you informed.)

This will be a unique opportunity for Allen County voters, a chance to decide whether to remodel a form of government that hasn’t really changed since adoption of the current state constitution in 1851. And the county could be a test case for all the other Indiana counties. If we make the change, the rest will be watching us to see how it works out.

If we had to guess right now, we’d say the referendum won’t succeed. Hoosiers are reluctant to change in general and seem especially happy with current forms of government. The efforts to restructure resurface every few years and always crash and burn accompanied by allegations that the poor, downtrodden masses are having Big Government shoved down their throats by the bib bullies who hold all the power. Just say “Unigov,” and you can get anything killed in Indiana.

If such hysteria can be avoided this time around, county leaders can have a rational, reasonable discussion about the pros and cons of such a change, a process all residents can learn from.

The proposed change is relatively modest compared to some past suggestions. City and county governments won’t merge. Only the county governing structure would change. Basically, commissioners would lose some power and council members would gain some. Is the shift in balance a good idea? That’s the question to be answered.

And the criterion should not be efficiency; government can only get so efficient without losing accountability. The criterion should be whether Allen County residents would be better or more poorly represented under a changed system.

It’s not as if this is anything new. The county would basically be going to the structure Indiana cities have always used. But cities and counties have unique opportunities and challenges, and what works for one won’t necessarily work for the other. That is the essence of the debate we should be asking for.