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General Assembly

Panel OKs public vote to end Allen County commissioners

– Allen County citizens would vote in November on whether to establish a single county executive style of government under a bill passed by the Senate Elections Committee Monday.

A 30-page amendment was added to a bill involving some minor elections provisions that had nothing to do with government structure.

It was also done without notice to the public. While the amendment was introduced briefly at last week’s hearing for House Bill 1318, there was no indication that the bill had anything to do with Allen County or county government. Also, the amendment itself wasn’t posted for the public to see until after Monday’s vote.

The only people there to testify in support were Allen County Council President Darren Vogt and representatives of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana – groups that have long pushed the measure.

The language is just two votes away from becoming law if the bill passes the Senate and the House concurs on changes to the legislation.

Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, offered the amendment – calling it a voluntary option for Allen County only and saying the Senate passed the language last year.

But last year’s effort had full public hearings in the House and the Senate. And it was not a legislatively mandated referendum.

Past versions have allowed the members of the Allen County commissioners or a public petition to trigger a referendum.

House Bill 1318 automatically sends it for a public vote this fall with no involvement from the three current county commissioners.

“You are asking three people to vote against themselves. I don’t think that’s fair,” said Rep. Martin Carbaugh, R-Fort Wayne. The language that was inserted is from a bill he filed in the House that did not receive a hearing.

He also noted that the public will have the ultimate say when it matters – at the ballot box.

The referendum question would essentially be whether the county should move to a single county executive system alongside a larger county council with legislative and fiscal powers.

It is similar to how a mayor and city council run a city.

If the referendum passes, the first Allen County single county executive would be elected in the 2018 general election and the county commissioners’ board would be abolished Jan. 1, 2019.

The County Council would jump from seven members – four districts and three at-large members – to nine single-member districts.

Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, said expanding the council to nine member districts deals with the concern about taking away commissioners.

“It is actual direct representation they really don’t have right now,” he said, noting the legislative authority would also move from the commissioners to the County Council.

But Long said he hasn’t looked at the process the bill uses to set up a referendum.

“The problem in the past was to give the commissioners veto power. I know they wanted to get away from that,” he said.

“This obviously goes the other direction.”

He also said the Senate has considered the matter a number of times and is familiar with the issues.

An email from Allen County lobbyist Beth Lock to Greater Fort Wayne Inc. lobbyist Katy Stafford-Cunningham said the majority of the commissioners have stated they will not oppose a referendum on the issue.

“Beyond that, the board is not prepared to comment. We will NOT testify in committee. We will continue to focus our efforts towards our top legislative priorities as outlined before session,” the email said.

Scott Glaze, chairman and CEO of Fort Wayne Metals, testified that it is more efficient to have a single county executive than three commissioners.

He said there have been problems in the past with commissioners on economic development issues.

“It makes the job of economic development difficult not having a single authority,” he said.

Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, voted against the amendment, saying he isn’t passionately for or against the concept.

But he noted it’s a 30-page rewrite of Allen County government and “I would prefer for it to move through the process like other bills.”

Katrina Hall, of Indiana Farm Bureau, testified against the bill on behalf of her group and specifically the Allen County Farm Bureau.

She said her members believe the current three county commissioner system provides better geographic representation.

“They are concerned a single county executive would be less accessible to them and more expensive,” Hall said.

The state county commissioners association didn’t testify but the chairman said they oppose the bill.

One of the major concerns by those groups is that the bill will be widened to apply to other areas of the state – not just Allen County.

An effort to do so last year killed the bill in the House.