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Term-limit lunacy

In state, county they don’t work

Prosecutor and sheriff are the two most important elected law enforcement officials in Indiana counties.

In addition to punishing the bad guys and women, prosecutors’ opinions go far in determining how laws are enforced in each county. Some prosecutors question drunk driving roadblocks, for example, and they are rarely used in those counties.

Sheriffs enforce laws, particularly outside cities, and also run jails, serve warrants and collect back taxes. Their aggressiveness in serving warrants, particularly, can set a tone in whether criminals get away or pay for crimes.

Earlier this month, Allen County Sheriff Ken Fries was elected to his second term. Term limits prohibit him from running again in 2014 – but he could in 2018. On the same day, Prosecutor Karen Richards was elected to her third consecutive term – prosecutor has no term limits.

If their inconsistency is isn’t reason enough to reconsider Indiana’s illogical and contradictory term limits, the fact is they don’t work.

Why have term limits?

One reason is to reinforce the idea of citizen-servants, bringing in a fresh crop of citizens to help run the government temporarily before giving way to others. Another is to keep any one person from accumulating too much power, from becoming a lifelong official who can build a fiefdom.

But often, term-limited county and state officials simply run for another office, playing a game of musical chairs that serves no one. Consider the 2002 election, in which county clerk Lisa Borgmann (formerly Blosser) and county auditor Therese Brown – both capable officials – simply changed jobs.

And accumulating power? How much power does the county recorder accumulate? Even county auditors – perhaps the most important job in county government – are tightly bound by state rules and laws, closely watched by state officials who must review and approve some of the auditors’ key decisions.

On the county level, the real power lies with the county commissioners, who both adopt and administer laws, and the county council, which controls the county purse strings. The commissioners also appoint a number of key officials and board members, giving them great power to award and enforce party patronage and individual loyalty. Yet the commissioners and council members – elected officials who have the most ability to accumulate and keep power – have no term limits.

Indiana’s governor was long limited to one term, until a 1972 state constitutional amendment extended it to two terms in 12 years. Now, former two-term governor Evan Bayh is contemplating running again. The situation is due to the 1851 Indiana constitution, which created the offices subject to term limits. Other offices, like mayor, prosecutor and county assessor, are created by state statute, not the constitution, and not subject to the limits.

This year, Indiana lawmakers will again consider recommendations of the Kernan-Shepard Commission, which called for eliminating townships, appointing sheriffs and other major and controversial changes. Perhaps lawmakers should start by seeking to eliminate term limits.

Why shouldn’t Mitch Daniels be allowed to run again for governor? Hoosier voters would decide whether he should be limited to two terms. Borgmann – county clerk, then auditor, then clerk again – was one of the best auditors in the county’s history. Why shouldn’t she be able to run again?

Why have term limits?

Tracy Warner, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 1981. He can be reached at 461-8113 or by e-mail, twarner@jg.net.

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