Allen County's government structure dates to 1824. Those who contend that it's high time for an overhaul made a good case at a debate on the referendum last week at New Haven's Park Learning Center.
The measure's opponents stuck to some simple points of opposition to the plan, which would replace the three county commissioners with a single county executive, and change the County Council to a fully legislative body, with nine members.
Roger Hadley, president of the Allen County Farm Bureau, reduced it to a numbers problem. Hadley argued that the new arrangement would reduce county residents' ability to get the answers and help they need from the commissioners. “I can start with one of them and get all three,” he said. “I know how to get hold of them. I've always been told, three heads are better than one.” Hadley argued that representation would be further reduced because each resident would get to vote for only one district council member instead of also voting for three at-large members, thus reducing the number of county representatives each voter chooses from seven to two.
“I'm not a math major,” Hadley said, “but that's a lot.
“The proposed change would reduce representation while consolidating power in the hands of one individual.”
Commissioner Nelson Peters, who, spoke in favor of the referendum question along with former state legislator Matt Bell, argued that it's not about numbers; it's about having a council member who truly represents your area. They pointed out that seven of the 10 current councilmembers and commissioners live in Fort Wayne.
If the measure passes, the current council, which only handles budgetary matters, would draw up the nine council districts, with an effort to respect communities of interest and geographical boundaries such as rivers and highways.
The new configuration, Peters said, would create constituencies of about 39,000 residents, give each Allen County community a representative and ensure that each of nine council member would be “laser-focused.”
“I would rather have one person to pay particular attention to my issues,” he said.
Bell and Peters contended that consolidating power in one executive is exactly what Allen County needs to compete effectively in the economic development realm.
“Any time you get three people in a room to debate something a business has said it wants an answer on quickly, it will take longer to get an answer,” Peters said.
Hadley's partner on the “no” side of Wednesday's debate, County Commissioner Therese Brown, once supported the single-county-executive concept. But she now believes the three-headed commissioner system has worked fine. “Decisions have not been held up in this county during the last four years that I've been a commissioner,” she said.
Bell and Peters say we've lost job-generating business opportunities already and that Fort Wayne's low ranking on an economic competitiveness index developed by IPFW is compelling evidence that we need a better governmental system.
“When we say it works, when we say there aren't delays, the market says otherwise,” Bell said.
That, to us, should be the essential question in the continuing debate this fall. We know Allen County's government must play a crucial role in the region's struggle for economic improvement. Will restructuring make a positive difference? If so, we need to leave tradition and fear behind and embrace change.
Or, as Bell put it, “We'll look forward to the future, not back to 1824.”