Whiting Mayor Joe Stahua is championing the Trust Local campaign for home rule that seems to be picking up steam among Indiana municipalities. It offers an opportunity for local government reform, but are the locals willing to pay that price?
The Trust Local campaign is the brainchild of the Indiana Conference of Mayors, of which Stahura is president this year. Stahura said other state associations representing local government are getting on board with the idea of granting more autonomy to local government.
Indiana political tradition is to put restraints on local government. There are plenty of examples of this. The Indiana Constitution has been amended to limit the amount of property taxes local government can collect, the types of income taxes that can be levied are spelled out by state law, even the municipal budgets are subject to state review.
Stahura's position, on behalf of the state association, is that state lawmakers should deal with state government and local officials should deal with local government.
"People in Whiting, there is nobody that hesitates to walk into my office or pick up the phone and come to me when they have a problem," Stahura said. That's not as easy in larger cities, but you get the idea.
It's a shorter trip to City Hall than to the Statehouse, too.
"Locally, we carry the weight, and when we do something stupid, we're likely to get banged." Stahura pointed to the high number of new mayors across the state.
When local government does something, there are local public hearings the public can easily attend, Stahura pointed out. That's not necessarily true with the General Assembly.
As the local government organizations go fishing for home rule in the General Assembly, they should put some bait on their hook.
In December 2007, The Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform proclaimed, "We've got to stop governing like this." Some of the recommendations in that Kernan-Shepard Report were quickly implemented, but others remain unaddressed.
If local government groups want more autonomy, they could address concerns about their trustworthiness and the cost of local government by offering to support these Kernan-Shepard recommendations.
Chief among them might be to restructure county government, with a county executive replacing the board of commissioners. That board is like a three-headed mayor. Two heads might be better than one, but one is better than three.
At the same time, restructure counties' financial operations so the auditor, treasurer and assessor don't work independently.
The "trust" aspect of Trust Local would be an easier sell with reforms like this in place.