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About 100 people attend a March meeting of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management at Huntertown Elementary School on a proposed sewage treatment plant. IDEM later rejected the proposal.

Failure to communicate

Public left out in Huntertown, St. Joseph Twp.

“Government closest to the people governs best.”

– Attributed to Thomas Jefferson

Nearly every rule has its exceptions.

Just look at Huntertown.

And St. Joseph Township.

Governments closest to these Allen County localities are marred by poor communication with constituents, personal grudges and conflicts of interest.

Perhaps every form of government has these traits to some degree. But the ongoing problems are disruptive and damaging in St. Joseph Township and, particularly, in Huntertown. Elected officials in both have made key decisions affecting constituents’ pocketbooks and quality of life, and yet citizens learned of the decisions after they had been made.

Both areas are heavily Republican. The six elected Huntertown officials and four St. Joseph Township officials are all Republicans. The two-party competition that exposes secrets and offers alternatives in cities like Fort Wayne doesn’t exist in either place.

And it’s difficult to argue that either government serves its residents well.

The same prudence which in private life would forbid our paying our own money for unexplained projects, forbids it in the dispensation of the public moneys.”

– Jefferson

On Nov. 5, the Huntertown Town Council paid for one error and committed another.

The council voted to sell 41 acres of land for $296,000 – five years after it bought the same property for $500,000. Town officials planned water wells and a new water plant at the site, but they didn’t plan well. The water supply was inadequate.

Huntertown had another problem: state regulators recently turned down its request to build a sewage plant because, essentially, it doesn’t need one. Huntertown, the state ruled, would unnecessarily pollute a ditch that flows into the Eel River and should instead continue sending its sewage to Fort Wayne City Utilities.

Yet, at the same Nov. 5 meeting, the council voted 3-2 to appeal that ruling, a move that requires paying attorney fees and possibly other costs in what will very likely be an unsuccessful effort.

“It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

– Jefferson

The day after that meeting, on Election Day, residents voted to uphold their decision to take some power away from the town council.

Soon after beginning their terms in 2011, the five council members decided to create a five-member board to oversee the town’s utilities.

The five town council members appointed themselves to the Utility Board.

One of those five town officials overseeing utilities workers is Sue Gongwer, whose husband, Tom Gongwer, is superintendent of the utilities.

The council created the board because of a feud with the town’s clerk-treasurer.

In the 2010 GOP primary, David Rudolph, himself a longtime town council member, challenged longtime incumbent clerk Robin Dove-Riley, partly because he didn’t think it was right that her employees included her daughter and sister. Rudolph won by six votes.

That didn’t go over well with some other council members. One, John Hidy, decided to run for the clerk’s office as an independent that November after losing a GOP primary race for county commissioner that May.

After Rudolph won in November, the council declared war, particularly after he noted the council sometimes did not follow proper procedures. One way to hit Rudolph was to take away power – including his supervision of the town’s employees. So the council took on the dual role of Utility Board, declaring its authority to supervise utility employees.

The last State Board of Accounts audit of Huntertown noted that though council minutes show two ordinances creating the board were adopted, they were not given to board representatives for examination.

For his part, Rudolph has been absent much of his term because of a stroke. The town has struggled with fulfilling his duties; currently, Rudolph’s wife is the deputy clerk but is not drawing a salary.

This May, town residents demonstrated opposition to the Utility Board by voting 371-177 to create a new board the council would appoint but that would have no more than one council member.

The Town Council responded by getting a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to change the decision they had made just six months earlier. Again, residents expressed their support for a more independent board, this time by a vote of 1,053-745.

“Delay is preferable to error.”

– Jefferson

Indiana townships have two main duties: Provide poor relief and provide for fire and emergency medical services, either directly or by contracting with another fire department.

The St. Joseph Township website – stjosephtwp.allenco.in.gov – has voluminous information about poor relief.

It also has a link to the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, the EMS provider.

But there is nary a mention of the fire department.

The St. Joseph Township Fire Department had long been regarded as one of the best township-level departments in Indiana. So when Township Trustee Richard Uhrick said at a meeting in August 2011 that the township would seek and accept bids for other agencies to provide fire and EMS service, it came as a surprise to many residents.

Uhrick had good reasons. Annexation has eaten away at the department’s coverage area as well as its property tax base. Today, the unincorporated part of the township – the area it serves – has only about 5,000 residents. The expense of running such a large department for such a small area simply cannot be justified.

But the last major annexation had been Dec. 31, 2005, nearly six years earlier. Why did an alternative suddenly become imperative?

Bids were due Nov. 15, giving township officials just 46 days to make a decision, award a contract and allow any new provider to prepare for a Jan. 1 start date.

On Dec. 22, the advisory board voted 2-1 to stop providing EMS service, giving the ambulance authority rights to serve the area.

Uhrick is an ambulance authority board member.

One of the votes for the new contract was by Sarah Gnagy – Uhrick’s daughter.

Another was from Greg Sult – who works for the insurance agency that sells coverage to the township.

The “no” vote came from Barry Kunkle – a captain on the fire department.

But no vote was taken on a proposed $248,000 fire contract with Fort Wayne.

“My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government.”

– Jefferson

Finally, On Dec. 30, 2011, with only hours to spare, the advisory board voted to continue its agreement with the township fire volunteers through 2012.

But that didn’t end the turmoil.

The relationship between the department and the township should be simple, but it isn’t. The volunteer department is a non-profit corporation, with the volunteer “shareholders” voting for their chief, over whom the township trustee has no supervisory control. And a number of the core members of the department have resigned, some citing displeasure with the current volunteer chief, Gerald Lencke. The township owns all of the equipment but contracts with the volunteers’ company to operate it.

For many years, the township paid full- and part-time firefighters, with the trustee appointing a paid fire chief, who worked with the volunteers’ chief.

In May, Uhrick informed the volunteer chief he had sold the department’s rescue boat, motor and trailer.

Also this year, Uhrick eliminated the paid positions and unilaterally ended the deal allowing volunteers to live in the expansive township station, on Maplecrest Road, in exchange for responding to overnight calls. Again, the right call but not made with diplomacy.

“He just locked the door and told them they were done,” said Jim Berger, the respected and longtime St. Joseph paid fire chief who left the department in 2010 over the lingering turmoil.

Uhrick had been talking with Fort Wayne fire officials about a 2013 contract, but the former city fire chief retired, there was a transition to the new chief, and city officials recently decided they were not in a position to expand the fire territory in 2013.

Berger is among those who believe the township should have its own department, noting that some rural areas of the township are not served by fire hydrants but that Fort Wayne has no water tanker trucks.

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

– Jefferson

In May 2011, an engineering consultant for Huntertown sent a news release just before a town council meeting discussing details of the council’s decision to build its sewage plant on a different site, which turned out to be park land. That was the first word Huntertown residents heard about plans to build on another site.

Three months later, Uhrick said St. Joseph Township was again seeking alternatives to its own fire department.

Lack of public involvement in these vital decisions is appalling.

“They’re not of the people, they’re of themselves,” David Garman, a Huntertown resident, said of the town council. “In their hearts, they believe they are doing right. But they don’t solicit the people’s opinions.”

Part of the problem is lack of an opposition party, because governments that have competitive elections have an automatic watchdog function of one party scrutinizing the other.

“The example you have in the state of local government run amok is Lake County,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. “Politically, it is very one-sided.”

While Democrats rule in Lake County, Vaughn notes, Republicans have near-complete power in other places – sometimes to the detriment of oversight.

State legislators’ attempts at wide-ranging local government reform have fallen short over the past few years, though lawmakers have adopted laws to restrict nepotism and dual roles of government employee/council member.

But laws can’t make government officials more responsive to the public.

Elections can.

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

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