GUEST COMMENTARY: Unigov won't work if leaders won't budge

2014-04-16T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Unigov won't work if leaders won't budgeBy Rich James nwitimes.com
April 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

It was in the early 1980s that Indiana State University did a study about Lake County merging all towns and cities into a unigov form of government.

By gosh, you would have thought someone had asked every family in Lake County to sacrifice its firstborn.

It is an issue that surfaces every decade or two. That’s good. Lake County doesn’t need 19 municipalities. Besides the wasteful spending, all those fiefdoms make it difficult for the county to blossom as a whole.

God bless Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. for resurrecting the issue a week ago.

With South Shore commuter rail expansion serving as a catalyst, McDermott said the best way to do more than talk about regionalism is to convert Lake County into one large city.

The mayor of Lake County’s largest city said legislation is needed to provide for the merger decades down the road. Parochial leaders would be gone by then, McDermott figured.

We just experienced the nasty — often racially charged — countywide fight against the state mandate to merge all E-911 call centers.

And we are witnessing parochialism at its worst as the South Shore issue has fractured the county.

While McDermott is right about a single Lake County government, it’s not going to happen – even decades down the road.

It worked easily 40 years ago in Marion County because it is home to a dominant city in Indianapolis.

While Lake County doesn’t have a dominant city, it does have a classic array of obstructionists.

Despite his support of regionalism, McDermott doesn’t want to commit massive amounts of money until he finds out what’s in it for Hammond. That’s understandable, and therein is the problem.

So, if unigov or a similar system is decades down the road at best, what is Lake County to do in the interim?

The easy answer is to turn to the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. While that’s a good thought, it’s not practical. NIRPC’s members spend too much of their time protecting their own turf.

E-911 consolidation and South Shore expansion have been painful, but encouraging.

The South Shore growth wouldn’t be on the verge of reality if U.S. Pete Visclosky hadn’t gone from town to town with hat in hand. That’s a commentary on how difficult it is to make regionalism a reality.

Local leaders, not the congressman, should have secured the local commitment.

Can Lake County work together short of unigov? Sure.

There is nothing to stop Lake County from forming a Congress of Communities to air and exchange ideas at monthly, bipartisan gatherings. It is too easy to arbitrarily pay lip service to the concept of regionalism and then go home.

I hope McDermott continues what he started. It’s good government. And, Lake County needs a local leader.

Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. Email him at rjames@219.com. The opinions are the writer’s.

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