Some people do the right thing only when someone else is walking behind them with a large stick, ready to swing it at any misstep. This can be true in crime, foreign policy and local government.
In a perfect world, such a tactic would not be necessary. There is no perfect world, but in the spectrum of places that are closest and furthest from perfect, Lake County government is out on an island in the furthest regions of imperfect territory. In those seemingly lawless regions, a big stick might be necessary to compel the right thing.
We're catching an early glimpse of it now in Calumet Township, where the threat of a state takeover by Indiana's Distressed Unit Appeals Board and the possible secession of Griffith from the township loom as a very large stick.
This past legislative session, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law that would authorize such a big stick if the Calumet Township trustee's office doesn't rein in a tax rate about 23 times larger than the state average for townships.
In what appears to be Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin's first symbolic move of compliance, she announced last week the parking of four take-home cars — vehicles purchased on the taxpayer dime and no doubt used during and after business hours by township employees.
Take-home cars have been a wasteful perk in various levels of local government over the years, and my first instinct is to cheer Elgin's move. How many taxpayers who fund these cars are afforded such a luxury? Most of us get a modest mileage reimbursement for driving on company time, not a set of wheels.
So Elgin deserves some praise for this. Unfortunately, she made it all about politics when announcing her reasoning. She told The Times the political furor stirred by critical Griffith town leaders prompted her to park the cars.
Never mind that in an era of cash-strapped local government budgets — and taxpayer wallets — parking such perks was the right thing to do. Elgin had an opportunity to come out — in the wake of the General Assembly's reform mandate — and acquiesce to doing the right thing simply because, well, it's the right thing. Instead, she blamed Griffith leaders who pushed for the state legislation.
In the end, it might not matter what Elgin says. It would seem the Griffith folks who pushed for the legislation — and the lawmakers who passed it — can celebrate a small victory.
Parking the take-home cars won't bring the township's tax rate into compliance or erase years of madcap spending on patronage jobs and administrative overhead. There is still much work to be done, and to do it right, the trustee's office likely will have to rebuild its system of delivering poor relief from the ground up.
But the cadence of a big stick tapping away inside the palm of the Indiana legislature's hand seems to be prompting a behavioral adjustment.