Proposed legislation may offer Allen County residents an opportunity to improve the transparency and confusing nature of county government. But it will happen only if at least two of the three county commissioners are willing to risk losing their jobs for the sake of their constituents.
Senate Bill 475, authored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, allows the commissioners to adopt an ordinance that could alter the structure of county government so that it more closely mirrors most other governmental entities.
The commissioners’ approval would trigger a public referendum giving voters the final decision.
The three-member Board of County Commissioners has executive as well as legislative authority. The County Council doesn’t pass laws and has power only over finances. The commissioners’ office has been derisively, but aptly, described as a three-headed monster.
The bill allows voters to chose a structure that more closely resembles other levels of government. It would create an elected single county executive – similar to a mayor – and a seven-member council with legislative powers. An amendment added Tuesday would get rid of the council’s at-large districts.
The new structure would provide a separation of powers and needed checks and balances currently missing.
It could also make county government more accessible. The aberrational structure is confusing to many people. Altering the structure would not only make it easier for citizens to understand but would also make it easier to know whom to hold accountable.
The bill has already passed the Senate and a House committee and will soon be before the full House. If it passes, it will apply exclusively to Allen County, which may present a problem. Special legislation created solely for the benefit – or detriment – of one locality is contrary to the principle of ensuring laws treat all citizens equally.
Some lawmakers oppose the bill because it doesn’t apply to the whole state. Proponents suggest the bill is using Allen County as a testing ground for the rest of the state.
To his credit, Commissioner Nelson Peters has long supported having a single county executive. He testified in favor of the legislation Tuesday.
Commissioners Linda Bloom and Therese Brown, however, voiced reservations.
Bloom told The Journal Gazette’s Statehouse reporter, Niki Kelly, it would put too much responsibility in one person’s hands. I’m not a supporter of changing anything, she said.
Brown thinks the workload is too much for one person. At this point I’d say I’m not a fan, but we’ll see what it looks like, she said.
Brown’s opposition is a change from what she told The Journal Gazette’s editorial board ahead of the 2010 election. Then she said she supported a single county executive as long as the office was elected, not appointed.
It’s certainly not the first time that someone gets in office and recognizes it’s a different beast than what they thought it was, she said.
Both Bloom and Brown should give the issue further thought and not reject it out of hand. At the very least, updating the structure of county government deserves a thorough public debate.