For years, Terry McDonald and Vince Buchanan were on the same side: As New Haven's mayor and Chamber of Commerce president, respectively, they worked together to promote the city's economy.
McDonald is still mayor, but Buchanan has spent the last year as executive director of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana – which means the two old friends find themselves on opposite sides of the deceptively straightforward debate that will precede a Nov. 4 vote on the future shape of Allen County government.
Buchanan and other advocates make the proposed changes sound logical enough: The practice of placing county legislative authority in the hands of three elected commissioners dates back to 1824 – the kind of inefficient, slow-motion bureaucratic anachronism that can impede progress in an era that often demands quick decisions. If voters agree, the three commissioners would be replaced by a single county executive four years later, with legislative power going to County Council, which would be expanded from seven to nine members.
"One (executive) would be more accountable," said Buchanan, who led the New Haven chamber for eight years. "With three (commissioners), things inherently slow down. This is a huge opportunity to move the economy. You're not really seeing a vision for the county."
McDonald, who seven years ago was a leader of a group that would have consolidated 19 East Allen County townships, towns and small cities in an effort to remain politically independent of Fort Wayne, won't get publicly involved in the opposition in order to "work nice" with Buchanan and other supporters. But he will vote to keep things the way they are.
"No one asked us. I don't think it will benefit us one way or another. If the right people are in office, they can work together," McDonald said. "That's what politics is about. You don't have to like each other to work together."
It is true that at times over the years the commissioners have almost seemed openly hostile with one another – something that caused former County Council member Paul Moss to brand the three-member body "dysfunctional" several years ago. But even Buchanan admits that proposed city-like system – like the present bureaucracy – would be only as good as the people elected to govern.
Deliberation is not always bad, after all, and speed not always a virtue.
Buchanan insists Allen County has failed to take advantage of economic opportunities because of the limitations of its present structure. Greater Fort Wayne Inc. President Mark Becker doesn't go quite that far, saying only that economic development successes of recent years – most of which have been in Allen County, not the city – could have been even more impressive.
But Buchanan is right when he says that most people don't know much bout county government – and perhaps care even less. And most of the people who do know or care live in rural areas – people who will come out to vote in November's countywide elections. Tactically speaking, supporters would have been better off holding the vote during next year's city election.
"We're trying to educate people right now," Buchanan said, noting that a group called Advance Allen is running ads on radio and TV to generate support for the change. He would not say how much money Advance Allen plans to spend, but said it will probably be less than $500,000.
Allen County Farm Bureau President Roger Hadley, meanwhile, said opponents may spend $150,000 to counter Advance Allen's media blitz.
While Buchanan argues that a single executive and nine district county council members would improve representation, especially in rural areas, Hadley insists just the opposite is true.
"Right now people can vote for seven of 10 people (three commissioners, three at-large council members and one district council member). If this passes, they could vote for two (one commissioner and one council member). I'm not a math major, but show me how that's more representation," Hadley said. "What's wrong with our economic development? Show me what we've lost. What's broken?"
To Hadley, the proposed change is a lot like former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi's argument for Obamacare: You have to pass it to know how it will work. Proposed districts haven't been drawn, salaries established or staff needs determined. A commissioner currently earns nearly $68,000; a council member nearly $16,000. Hadley suspects both salaries would increase because of the added duties the proposed changes would bring.
This proposal is not "unigov." It could be construed, however, as a way to "urbanize" county government – something consistent with one supporter's statement that "the (Fort Wayne) mayor needs an ally in county government." But I've covered county government for 35 years, and in fact the level of city-county cooperation and economic development success has seldom been better. Could it be better still? No doubt, but that is about personnel as much as structure, and Buchanan is being overly optimistic when he gives passage a 50-50 chance.
As he said: "Change is difficult whether it's good or not." Especially when the supposed benefits are undefined and theoretical, and the concerns – however unjustified – very real.