Northwest Indiana is at a crossroads! We have seen our region attacked for our wasteful ways and our government-funded patronage jobs. Also, as we all know, during the last two decades, several elected officials have been convicted of felony crimes.
In a recent conversation with Andy Shaw, former journalist and now head of the Better Government Association of Chicago, he lamented a similar circumstance occurring in Illinois. According to Shaw, since two former governors and the most recent past governor have been indicted for criminal acts, Illinois is now the "joke of the country."
There are signs, however, that things might be changing for Northwest Indiana. In 2003, the Quality of Life Council passed a resolution calling for local communities to enact and enforce ethics ordinances. In 2005, three Lake County communities formed the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission. Since then, two more communities have joined the commission, and all five (Crown Point, Highland, Munster, Schererville and Whiting) have committed to provide ethics training to every municipal employee. Valparaiso also has a strong ethics program.
And there's more: State Sen. James Arnold of LaPorte has introduced legislation this session that will force elected officials to disclose conflicts of interest. LaPorte County Commissioner Willie Milsap is proposing an ethics ordinance for LaPorte County that would, among other things, prohibit government employees from holding other jobs. The ordinance also would require public disclosure of conflicts of interest.
While these important acts alone will not solve all of our problems, they are a significant step forward. Since, in one of our local communities, virtually every city councilman is a municipal employee, these changes cannot come fast enough.
In a recent guest column, Gov. Mitch Daniels encouraged Hoosiers all across the state to commit themselves to greater efficiency in government and the elimination of these very same conflicts of interest. His particular target was Indiana's 1,006 townships, an antiquated form of government, known to be filled with patronage positions. Township government has already been judged to be unnecessary in most states across the country, and their elimination in Indiana has been endorsed by The Times. The elimination of townships was also recommended in the "Streamlining Local Government" report, otherwise known as the Kernan-Shepard report.
But townships are only part of the story. In a recent interview regarding his office's pursuit of public corruption, U.S. Attorney Dave Capp was quoted as saying, "There is a common theme that emerges and a mindset that is common to these public officials-that the public office is their personal property and that public employees do their bidding. Until that mindset ends, we will continue to see these crimes."
In an effort to focus ever-greater attention on the ethical issues affecting government in Northwest Indiana, the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council, the Lake County Advancement Committee, and the Lake County Shared Ethics Advisory Commission are co-hosting a March 11 event to discuss these and related matters.
Shaw will be the keynote speaker with additional presentations by Attorney General Greg Zoeller and U.S. Attorney Dave Capp. A panel of local government officials will also comment.
March has been designated as "National Ethics Awareness Month." This March 11 program holds the promise of shedding more light on these challenging ethical problems in our community.
Dennis Rittenmeyer is president of Calumet College of St. Joseph. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.