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Alone With J

April 29, 2013

By J SWYGART
    Indiana’s Kernan-Shepard report has been collecting dust for six or more years now, and if a dust-up in Adams County this month is any indication, that comprehensive report is destined to remain mothballed.
    Officially known as the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, the so-called Kernan-Shepard report is a look at ways to eliminate waste and duplicity throughout the state’s 92 counties, 1,008 townships, 117 cities and 451 towns. The report takes its name from former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard.
      The forward of the report, authored by Shepard and Kernan and first released on Dec. 11, 2007, reads as follows:
      “We now have spent the last six months asking whether Indiana’s patchwork of local government delivers the most effective service at the lowest possible expense. The answer is no.
      “Contrary to the image most people hold of our state, Indiana is a place where the taxpayers support lots and lots of governments. We maintain literally thousands of local governments, and we pay for more than 10,000 officeholders.
    “All of this is more expensive than it needs to be. Moreover, it is all so complicated that voters and taxpayers have an extremely difficult time maneuvering their way through the maze and making their will felt. Indeed, even the many dedicated men and women who serve in this system of overlapping layers find it difficult to perform their duties effectively.”
    The centerpiece of the report’s recommendation called for the three-member board of county commissioners to be replaced by a single county executive and a stronger county council, to whom professionally qualified administrators should report and be accountable. Township government should be eliminated, the report suggested, and all spending, including that of schools, would be subject to more rigorous examination by elected officials. More generally, the report called for the elimination of duplicating services and urged the merger, where possible, of some government entities.
    The report has gained little traction. Township officials statewide rose as one to beat back that provision in the report, and the remaining recommendations have been mostly ignored.
    One need look no further than Adams County to understand why.
    Over the past couple of weeks a few innocent questions have turned into an apparent controversy as the mere mention of a merger/consolidation/realignment between the Adams County park board and the Decatur board of parks and recreation has rocked some boats that have long been comfortably drifting along unnoticed.
    First of all, who knew there were two local park boards? Okay, some of you probably knew. I’m betting most didn’t. But after sitting in on a couple of recent meetings, one could legitimately ask why either board exists. Board members for the most part aren’t sure which of the parks and rec employees are city workers and which are county employees. Who performs what services? Who supervises whom? Whose equipment — the city’s or county’s — is used to perform which tasks? Most members couldn’t answer the bulk of those questions without leafing through their voluminous three-ring binders for guidance.
    But there seems to be far less uncertainty among the majority of board members when it comes to protecting their respective turfs. Things are just fine as they are, thank you very much, several board members will tell you. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
    Sorry, but to this pair of outside eyes, if things aren’t broken ... well, they’re certainly badly bent.
    The impetus for change was provided last week when parks superintendent Steve Krull announced his plans to retire in January of 2014.  With the two-pronged goal of saving taxpayer dollars and streamlining the city-county parks department, county park board member Larry Butler said the park system “would be more powerful if we all work together. The board would be stronger and everyone would know what’s going on. It’s my hope that there would be one board, with the ultimate goal being not to replace Mr. Krull.”
    But change doesn’t come easily to Hoosiers, it seems (need an example? think Daylight Savings Time). To their credit, though, members of the county park board last week agreed to have attorneys from both the city and county sit down and discuss the legal logistics of turning the two park boards into one. It’s a step in the right direction.
    There are, however, some disturbing facets to this potential transformation of the parks and rec department, not the least of which is the role of the Adams County commissioners.
    “I know the commissioners are in favor of merging (the two boards) and becoming one,” Butler said last week. But have the commissioners said that publicly? Not to the best of our knowledge. Have the commissioners attended any meetings of the park board? Until last week, when Kim Fruechte sat in on a meeting to voice his frustration at the way county park board bills are submitted to the commissioners for approval, the answer is no. And Fruechte last week — surely fully aware that merger discussions were about to take place — certainly had the opportunity to weigh in on the subject. He chose not to do so.
    Instead, the commissioners reportedly have chosen to apply pressure to their board appointee to do their bidding. And that’s a helluva way to run a railroad — or a parks department.
    Regardless, the city and county park boards do indeed face some difficult decisions about the future of the local parks system, and we don’t envy their dilemma. But here’s hoping that the decisions ultimately reached are centered around fiscal responsibility and departmental efficiency, and not around maintaining the status quo simply for the sake of nostalgia.
    A single park board seems to make a tremendous amount of sense. Let the discussions continue.

    The writer is the opinion page editor of the Decatur Daily Democrat.
 

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