Political Will…Or Won’t

Will we or won’t we?

The Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform issued its recommendations while I was teaching a class for mid-career government employees in Southern Indiana. They applauded many of the proposals. When the conversation turned to the likelihood of action, however, they were cynical. As one said, “Ultimately, those guys in the statehouse look out for their own political interests, not those of the citizens.”

We all have a stake in proving him wrong.

Those of us who teach public administration like to use words like “transparency” and “accountability.” What those terms mean in simple English is that citizens should be able to figure out who is in charge of what, and who made what decision. It isn’t rocket science.

The Commission’s recommendations would eliminate lots of unnecessary layers of government, and that streamlining would obviously have a major fiscal impact. But important as cost-saving is, the real product of reform will be more transparency, more accountability, and greater efficiency. (How many township assessors or county coroners do we elect based upon their skills in assessing or dissecting? How many of us even know who’s running for those positions?)

The major elements of the report have been widely publicized, but other excellent  recommendations haven’t received enough attention. I particularly like Recommendation #24, which would prohibit employees of a local government unit from serving as elected officials of that unit. (Under this provision, Monroe Gray, among others, would have been disqualified from acting both as lawmaker and city employee.) As the report points out, such service is a clear conflict of interest. It undermines the chain of command and procedures for discipline, and “diminishes the faith that citizens must have that local governments act in the public interest.”  

Recommendation #16 proposes moving municipal elections to even-year cycles, when all other elections are held. Not only would this save the considerable costs involved in holding an extra election, it might improve voter turnout for these contests. In the last Indianapolis mayoral election, for example, only a quarter of those who were eligible voted. Thirteen percent of registered voters chose Greg Ballard. That’s hardly a mandate, and that reality will make it harder for him to govern.

Many of the other recommendations are equally common-sensical. Several have been kicking around longer than I have—and believe me, that is a long time!

I’m not suggesting that legislators obediently enact every single one of the Commission’s recommendations. Some will need to be tweaked. All should be fully debated and analyzed. But overall, the Commission has produced a map to the 21st Century for a state whose administrative structures mostly date from the 19th. If the bulk of these recommendations become law, we can expect the outcomes the Commission identifies: local governments that will be “more understandable, more efficient, more effective and more accountable.”  

The question is whether we have the will to withstand both vested interests and civic inertia—if we have the will to prove my cynical students wrong.