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Allen County commissioners: dysfunctional -- or deceptively effective?

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Fort Report

This week's guest will be Mark Becker, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., who will discuss economic development, the 2014 state legislative session and other issues.
The episode will premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on Comcast Channel 57 and FiOS Channel 27 and later at www.news-sentinel.com.

Before trading three for one, voters should weigh the pros and cons

Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 12:01 am

They've been derided as dysfunctional by fellow Allen County officials, who once tried to slash their pay.

Some of them have seemed indifferent to hard work, while others have expressed frustration over not being able to get more accomplished.

But whether you consider the Allen County Board of Commissioners to be a bureaucratic version of the Holy Trinity, the Three Stooges or somewhere in between, their performance over the years has hardly been so venal or inept that getting rid of them will somehow transform county government from a horse-and-buggy anachronism into sleeker, more-responsive model better equipped to meet the needs of residents and businesses alike.

And yet, after decades of stops and starts, the possibility of change is imminent. The Indiana House and Senate have approved a bill that would replace the three commissioners with a single county executive and transfer their legislative duties to County Council, which in turn would grow from seven to nine members, each representing a single district. No less than Indiana Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, Wednesday touted the change – which if signed by the governor would be on the November ballot – as one of the area's three most important legislative accomplishments this session.

But is it, really? Before making up your mind – and certainly before you vote -- consider a few pros and cons.

Perhaps the best argument in favor is made by one of the people currently holding the job. Commissioner Nelson Peters said it is often necessary to make decisions quickly, especially when dealing with prospective businesses, and that process can be slowed by having to deal with two other officials who may not be available. Cells phones makes that easier to do, of course, but the state open-door law limits the Commissioners' ability to make decisions immediately or in private.

What's more, because each has a designated area of responsibility, “people don't know who to talk to. When they call they want to be able to talk to one person.”

Or as Bill Brown, whose frustration with the job's limitations led him to step down after one term, used to put it: “I'm only one of three.”

Retiring long-time State Sen. Tom Wyss, R-Fort Wayne, has long championed this and similar changes, and believes giving the county executive and Council members more authority will attract better candidates.

A former County Councilman himself, Wyss said he's convinced the presence of nine district representatives will protect rural interests and that the election of a single executive will improve accountability.

"Just like the mayor, there will be a go-to person,” said Katy Stafford-Cunningham of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., which made the bill one of its top legislative priorities and can be counted on to lobby voters for its passage in November.

But one of the most compelling reasons for caution was offered by the man who once labeled the Commissioners dysfunctional – and generally supports eliminating them.

“It's hard for three people to run a business. For better or worse, this would promote oligarchy – a smaller group of people will have more influence. That can be good or bad.”

Wyss thinks the county executive would focus on “county” issues and leave

city business to the mayor, but not everyone is convinced the change wouldn't allow urban interests to overwhelm rural concerns.

New Haven Mayor Terry McDonald, for example, fears the loss of “at large” council members will mean no single district representative will be looking at the “big picture.” County Council currently has three at-large members. Some even fear the change is a back-door attempt to transition into some form of “Unigov,” although McDonald and Wyss dispute that.

I have covered the Commissioners on and off for 35 years, and I have seen them at their best and worst. I have criticized lack of attendance and needless public bickering, but I have also seen them work well, with the three-member system promoting a certain amount of deliberation that could help avoid mistakes made under pressure. But city government performance has not been uniformly excellent, either.

And this much is undeniable, even to the Commissioners' staunchest critics. When it comes to economic development, most of this community's biggest victories over the past several years have come under county jurisdiction. To be sure, that's due in large part to the availability of rural land, and the city helped in many of those cases, and in many other collaborative efforts. But could that record have been even better under a different structure?

Peters thinks so, and he should know.

But the bill's supporters will need to convince voters of the same.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.