County-government reform bill goes to Senate

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Local voters could choose among two new systems

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

PERRY COUNTY – Perry County residents won't have a choice in whether their three commissioners are replaced by a single county executive or a board of county supervisors if a bill approved in a state Senate committee survives the remainder of the legislative process. The commissioners can put it to a vote, but they or county residents must decide which of the two forms of government will guide Perry County in the future.

The News reported the Indiana General Assembly's Senate Local Government Committee was considering Wednesday three bills aimed at fulfilling a goal of Gov. Mitch Daniels to convert the current system of county government, which he feels is archaic and inefficient.

Senate bills 379 and 550 could have given residents of most Hoosier counties opportunities to vote on a conversion. Senate Bill 506, which the local-government committee approved, makes a change mandatory.

The original bill contained no provision for a board of county supervisors. It appeared in the amended version that goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Its passage there is expected, while the measure is likely to encounter resistance in the House, according to Perry County Commissioner Gary Dauby. He preferred the alternatives that had been proposed, saying Thursday, "I think Perry County people would use their heads" if given an opportunity to vote on whether to retain the current system or another.

He and other current and past commissioners have said they feel the matter should be decided locally, not in Indianapolis. The News has reported on the possibility in the past, beginning with a series of stories early last year detailing recommendations from a commission Daniels established to examine the state's forms of local government. He and the commission recommended that a county executive replace the three commissioners leading most Indiana counties.

The executive would appoint people to fill many of the positions for which county residents now vote, based on the governor's premises that they are administrative roles whose occupants should answer to a single authority.

Of the 100 members of the Indiana Association of County Commissioners who responded to a January survey, 74 percent opposed the change. Twenty-one percent thought each county should decide the issue and 5 percent felt the conversion should be mandatory. Respondents represent 59 of the state's 92 counties.

Of those who feel a county should have the option of changing, 49 percent of the respondents said it should occur through voter referenda. Just over one-quarter feel county commissioners should decide.

Objections were strongest in the southeast portion of the state, where 85 percent of respondents registered "no" votes.  Next highest was the northeastern area, with 79 percent objecting, followed by the west-central section with 73 percent and east-central with 71. Southwestern and northwestern areas tied at 67 percent.

Auditors, coroners, recorders, surveyors, sheriffs and treasurers would still appear on election ballots under the bill the local-government committee approved, but assessors would not be elected after 2010. The governor's-commission's report, issued in December 2007, included a recommendation to transfer the responsibility for administering the duties of all of those positions to the county executive.

The local-government committee amended the bill to include a board of county supervisors as an alternative to a county executive. Sen. Connie Lawson posted a news release on her Web site Wednesday claiming the bill will give counties options on "how to streamline local government and provide efficiencies to their communities."

The bill would require county legislative bodies, except Lake and Marion counties, to adopt a resolution between Oct. 31, 2009 and Nov. 15, 2009 that either:

• Selects a single-county chief executive officer in charge of all executive powers and duties for the county and a strengthened county council with legislative and fiscal powers and duties of the county;

• Selects a board of county supervisors – (composed) of combined executive, legislative and fiscal bodies – responsible for all executive, legislative and fiscal powers and duties of the county; or

• Selects to have a public referendum in 2010 allowing voters to decide on one of these two options.

"Lawmakers understand that one size does not always fit all," Lawson said in the release. "Providing all counties with this specific two-week window allows ample time for research and public input on what option best fits each Hoosier community."

The local-government committee also had Senate Joint Resolution 7 on their calendar for Wednesday, but didn't vote on it. It's intended to amend the state constitution to remove county recorders, treasurers, coroners and surveyors from the ranks of elected officials. Assessors' positions are authorized by the Indiana General Assembly, so they'd be changed through legislation, not an amendment.

The version of Senate Bill 506 approved by the local-government committee would have the county council or board of supervisors appoint the assessor.