Budget-conscious: As a member of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bob Cherry is focusing on the state budget. But he thinks government reform should be left up to local officials. Tom Russo / Daily Reporter
Budget-conscious: As a member of the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Bob Cherry is focusing on the state budget. But he thinks government reform should be left up to local officials. Tom Russo / Daily Reporter

By Erin Meyer, Daily Reporter


  INDIANAPOLIS - The debate about reforming local government is drawing elected officials from the city, county and townships by
the dozen to the capitol for a front-row seat to a growing battle. 

    Some are lobbying to maintain the existing government structure and their connection to city and county voters, while others are fighting to hold on to their office and livelihood. 

    On the other side are state lawmakers who - like Gov. Mitch Daniels - think local government is bloated and obsolete. 

    "There definitely is more tension," said state Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, after a long day Wednesday at the Statehouse. "I would say emotions ran higher this time." 

    As a member of the Senate Local Government Reform Committee, Gard was in the voting majority that passed Senate Bill 506 out of committee after almost six hours of discussion and testimony. The bill could, among other things, get rid of the three-member county commissioner setup and shift more duties to county councils. 

    The measure now goes to the full Senate. 

    "Any time I find a group that isn't willing to take a look at themselves, it raises a lot of red flags for me," Gard said. 

    The reform movement in the Legislature is the product of a collection of bills born of the Kernan-Shepard report, issued last year in response to skyrocketing property taxes. The report, by former Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, is a list of 27 recommendations to overhaul what its authors call an "archaic" system of local government in Indiana. 

    "The taxpayers spoke very loudly last year, and in my opinion, this is a possible extension of property tax reform," said state Sen. Connie Lawson, who is chairwoman of the Senate committee - the first elected body to publicly vet a long list of bills based the Kernan-Shepard recommendations. 

    At one point during Wednesday's hearing, Lawson reprimanded the members of the audience who had come to watch or testify. 

    "No more jeering from the audience," she ordered. 

    On another occasion, she scolded a county commissioner who was testifying against one of the bills, warning her not to "disparage other elected officials." 

    Gard volunteered for the committee knowing that it would mean long hours and hard feelings. 

    Having served 13 years on the Greenfield City Council before running for the Senate, Gard has personal experience with local government. 

    "I had more sympathy for the county commissioners before these hearings started than I do now," Gard said during the hearing in response to testimony from Judy Anderson, president of Indiana Association of County Commissioners

    The local government reform debates are dominating Gard's days at the Statehouse. On Wednesday, after four hours in Public Health Committee in the morning, she met the county's four financial officers in the Statehouse cafeteria for lunch. 

    "I'm a little concerned about them taking the power away from the voters," Auditor Linda Grass said. 

    She and her colleagues in the offices of county recorder, treasurer, surveyor are opposed to a resolution discussed in Gard's committee that would make their jobs appointed instead of elected positions. 

    Elected county officials are accustomed to answering to voters, they said, not another elected official. 

    The biggest difference between the bills vetted by the committee Wednesday focused on who should get to decide the counties' fate. 

    The first one, Senate Bill 379, would allow counties to hold referendums so voters can choose whether to eliminate the board of commissioners in favor of a single county executive and give all legislative and fiscal authority to the county council. 

    Senate Bill 506 mandates the elimination of the board of county commissioners and gives voters authority to reshape local government through referendum. 

    Senate Bill 550 leaves the decision to county commissioners, who would determine if their individual counties should hold referendums and give voters the choice. 

    Gard is critical of the current system of county government because it divides fiscal and policy-making authority, with the commissioners in charge of local laws and the county council as gatekeepers to the county bank account. 

    "You cannot separate your policy-making from your fiscal issues because all policies take money," she said. "We are the only state that does that. It makes us pretty antiquated." 

    Gard is leaning toward a proposal that would merge the responsibilities of the proposed single county executive and the existing county council and commissioners into one elected board. 

    "From the information that I have now, that model really sounds to me like it would be much more functional and efficient," she said. 

    If any one of bills makes it into law, Hancock County commissioners Tom Stevens, Brad Armstrong and Derek Towle's days in office could be numbered. 

    At the invitation of the Association of Indiana Counties, Armstrong sat in on one of the hearings Monday to represent the group. 

    Stevens witnessed three hours of testimony for and against the removal of commissioners. 

    "I'm not there to protect my job," Stevens said. "My interest is keeping the government in the hands of county voters." 

    He added: "I was very disappointed with Senator Gard, who passed one of the 'yes' votes. She doesn't seem to be listening to the same voters that I am hearing from or seeing the same polls." 

    A legislative survey from Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, suggests the reform idea has significant support. Out of nearly 200 constituents who responded to his survey, 88, or 45 percent, suggested that counties be given the option to replace the county commissioners with a single executive. A total of 38 percent disagreed with the idea; 16 percent weren't sure. 

    While Gard's days at the statehouse have been dominated by local government reform questions, Cherry has been busy in the House Ways and Means Committee piecing together a state budget under increasing financial pressure. 

    At the end of the month, the House and Senate will shift their focus. If all goes according to plan, Senate-approved bills will switch over to the House for round two of debates; House bills and the budget will go to the Senate. 

    "These bills are going to take a lot of twists and turns, and it's not a foregone conclusion that anything will end up passing," Gard said. 

    Cherry, who served in local government as a Hancock County Council member from 1992 to 1998, said he does not believe county government is broken. 

    "I'm not against reorganization, but I think it should definitely be up to counties to decide and not a state mandate," Cherry said. "We can't prove if we're going to save money or not."

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