In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many states added elements of direct democracy that enabled voters to have a direct say in what might become law, how public money would be spent, and recalling elected officials from office.
Indiana did not add many of these elements which is why many voters may not be able to remember ever actually voting on anything like these.
This November, Allen County residents will have a rare opportunity to take part in direct democracy. Voters will be deciding if Allen County will change from a board of three elected county commissioners to a single elected county executive.
Currently, there are three members on the board of commissioners. Each one has to live in a specific district (first, second, or third), but they are elected at-large. The commissioners serve as the legislative and executive branches of government for Allen County. There also is a seven-member county council that handles fiscal matters and serves as a check and balance on the board of commissioners. Four of the council members serve districts and the other three serve at-large. A map for the commissioner districts and a map for the council districts can be found on the county’s web site.
There are three basic structures for the 3,000+ county governments in the United States (the National Association of Counties is a good resource for information about counties). Allen County happens to have the most common form of county government. The second form has a board of commissioners that hires an administrator who handles day-to-day duties. The third form has a single elected person serving as the county executive. The legislative duties are handled by the county council in this third structure. There is a trend away from the board of commissioners. This trend has been facilitated by states like Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee mandating that counties go to an elected county executive.
When Allen County voters go to the polls on November 4th this year, they will see the following question thanks to House Bill 1346:
Voters will select either “yes” or “no.” A simple majority of those voting on the question will settle the matter. If it passes, an elected single county executive will replace the three-person board of commissioners beginning on January 1, 2019. The seven-member county council also will be replaced by a nine-person county council all of whom will be elected to serve districts and there will be no at-large members.
The County Executives of America describes the choice Allen County voters are facing this way:
“Some prefer a county executive form of government because it helps streamline services and centralize decision-making. Others prefer a government where authority is dispersed among many interests, as often presented in a commission form of government.”
As voters think about how they will vote, they may want to think about factors such as the size of the population; the amount of rural, suburban, and urban land; the geography of the county; the tax base; whether the tax base is growing or shrinking; the political and cultural history of the county; and the administrative resources of the county. Each of these factors influences the nature of the work the board of commissioners or single county executive will have to do and how they will do it.
Voters may also want to be thinking about the services the county provides and what services they would like the county to provide. Over time as the county has grown in population and become more urbanized, the expectations for what the county does have grown.
Allen County voters may want to consider the fact that the structure will influence the characteristics and perspectives of those who seek the offices. While there are people who have sought both offices, there are differences between the people who want to serve on a three-person board and those who want to serve as a single executive. Voters also may want to consider that having nine single-member districts for the council could result in more communities of interest having a seat on the council. A shift in structure like this also will change how many elected officials are directly responsible to each constituent.
In the end, we do not know which structure will work best. There is research that supports both. What we do know is that governments are designed to be inefficient with a separation of powers and system of checks and balances. While the structure of government can influence how well a government works, it is the people in the government who make it work well.
Andrew Downs is Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW.
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