NEW HAVEN – It was easy to tell how some people felt about an initiative to change the structure of Allen County government at a forum Wednesday.
The group Advance Allen, which supports the move from three commissioners to a single county executive, handed out literature on the right side of the doors leading into the auditorium of Park Learning Center.
A group called No to One SCE (single county executive) was on the opposite side, handing out stickers and decals.
Voters will be asked to decide the matter Nov. 4. If passed, the referendum would replace the three county commissioners with a single elected executive, chosen in November 2018 and taking office in January 2019.
In addition, the County Council would increase from seven members to nine, each representing a specific district.
While the county executive would have executive power, all legislative and fiscal powers would be delegated to the County Council. Currently the commissioners have both executive and legislative power, and the council is the fiscal body.
Nearly 100 people attended the debate, which was moderated by Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
Matt Bell, a former legislator who also was the founding chief executive officer of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana, and County Commissioner Nelson Peters argued the merits of the proposed structure, and County Commissioner Therese Brown and Roger Hadley, president of the American Farm Bureau, explained why they thought it was a bad idea.
The two sides did not agree on much.
Fielding questions from the audience, Peters said there was not enough work to keep three commissioners busy, whereas a single county executive could focus on economic development and bring in more jobs.
The county has lost business and jobs to other counties, he said, because the three commissioners did not move quickly enough or could not agree on how things should be done.
There’s enough work to keep three or four or eight commissioners busy, Brown said. I think we’re pretty nimble now.
And, decisions have not been held up during my years as commissioner, she added.
With the new structure, Allen County voters would choose one county executive and one council member within their districts. Currently, voters choose three county commissioners and four council members – three at-large and one within their districts.
Hadley said the move would reduce representation to the people of Allen County and consolidate power into the hands of one person.
But Bell said times have changed since county government was structured in 1824 and that Allen County needs to change as well.
The trouble with a three-person governing board is that there is no one, single point of vision, Bell said. We’ve seen that tonight with the two commissioners sometimes agreeing, sometimes not agreeing.
Allen County must embrace change. We’ve had 30 years of declining wages, we’ve lost jobs, and the young and talented are leaving this community to find work elsewhere.
Hadley countered by saying: We are not opposed to change if there’s a reason for it and the change is good for us.
But we do not see enough good in this to make the change.
While economic development and jobs are important, Brown said, there are many other components of county government that the new model does not address.
All need an equal voice, she said.
Peters, however, said smaller communities in the county would be better represented under the proposed model because there would be nine County Council districts and a representative for each area.
I now have three county commissioners and four council members who are my representatives. With the new structure, I lose the ears of five of those people, he said.