Consider the glacial pace of local government reform in Indiana: It was 45 years ago that Indianapolis and Marion County governments were combined to form Unigov. A decade ago, a fledgling reorganization effort collapsed, at a session now remembered as the Grabill Massacre, when angry residents from Allen County’s unincorporated areas confronted area lawmakers at a town meeting. In 2012, opponents turned back an Evansville-Vanderburgh County consolidation measure by a 2-1 margin.
Nothing happens quickly when it comes to reshaping Indiana local government, which might explain why a fast-moving measure to elect a single county executive in Allen County is making some uncomfortable. The question for Allen County voters, however, is a simple one: Will the state’s second-largest metropolitan area benefit from a form of county government different from the model established more than 150 years ago?
This is so simple. We don’t need to spend months and months debating it, said Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW and long-time observer of reorganization efforts.
It’s not Unigov. It’s not elimination of township government. It doesn’t apply to any other county. It’s an idea that’s been discussed and analyzed for many years. In short, it’s an opportunity that might not present itself again for years.
House Bill 1318 was amended mid-session to include language authorizing an Allen County referendum in November. If the referendum passes, the three-member board of county commissioners would be replaced with a single county executive in January 2019. County Council would expand from four district and three at-large seats to nine district seats. No other county offices would be affected.
Opposition already is forming. The Indiana Farm Bureau, the Allen County Farm Bureau and the Indiana Association of County Commissioners oppose the bill. Rural residents who worked against the 2004 movement could organize again, along with city residents concerned that their representation will be diluted.
The plan has powerful support, however. Greater Fort Wayne Inc., created by the merger of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce and Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, made the measure a legislative priority.
This form of government will give the public a single elected official to hold accountable for whether or not the county is operating effectively and efficiently rather than looking to three individuals who may not like to share praise or blame, wrote Chuck Surack, a member of Greater Fort Wayne’s board of directors, in a letter to the editor.
Commissioners Therese Brown and Nelson Peters have previously endorsed the idea. Brown and Commissioner Linda Bloom both face re-election this fall, but their terms would expire along with the current structure if the referendum is approved.
The single county executive would hold a position unique in Indiana, but the idea is hardly a radical one. Hoosiers, in their careful and deliberate approach, can decide county by county whether it’s right for their own communities. For Allen County residents, that opportunity is within reach.