RICH JAMES: Term limits kick out good people, too

2013-07-03T00:00:00Z RICH JAMES: Term limits kick out good people, tooBy Rich James
July 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Lake County Auditor Peggy Holinga Katona and Treasurer John Petalas hope to swap offices next year.

There are some — largely Republicans who have trouble winning in Lake County — who call that the musical chairs game. That’s not fair.

There are others who say a lifelong commitment to public service is a proud profession.

Katona and Petalas aren’t trying to move across the hall because they want a change of scenery.

No, the Indiana Constitution forces them to do so.

The folks who rewrote the state Constitution in 1851 decided it would be a good idea to impose term limits on most county offices. I’m not terribly sure why. I hear Indiana was a very different place back then.

So the sheriff, coroner, treasurer, auditor, recorder and clerk are limited to two consecutive terms. After serving eight years, they must leave office but can come back four years later.

But, for unexplained reasons, the county prosecutor, surveyor and assessor can serve as long as the voters continue to elect them.

Because of what some folks decided in 1851, it isn’t easy to make public service a career on the county level in Indiana. That doesn’t make for good government.

Thus, we have name-calling each time people like Katona and Petalas attempt to change offices.

Katona will be trying to regain the treasurer’s office, where she served eight years before becoming auditor.

The late Leslie O. Pruitt covered the most ground in recent memory. He was auditor, treasurer and sheriff. And even though he didn’t have a law enforcement background, veteran cops say Pruitt was a good administrator as sheriff.

Peter Benjamin was county auditor and assessor but lost bids for sheriff and commissioner.

Sam Orlich was county recorder and auditor.

Current county Clerk Mike Brown previously served as recorder, and the late Nick Angel was treasurer and commissioner, just to name a few.

The one who really gave musical chairs a bad name was Tom Philpot.

Philpot served as coroner (twice) and clerk.

Philpot did his very best to drag public service through the mud. He was clerk and waiting (because of a lag between election and taking office) to become coroner for the second time.

And because he had more ego than integrity, he launched a campaign for sheriff before being sworn into the office to which he was last elected. The voters finally said no. That’s how it ought to work with every office.

Don’t blame Katona and Petalas next year because they will be attempting to change offices.

Instead, ask your legislators to change the law that forces county officials to bob and weave and twist and turn every so often.

Public service can be a very honorable profession. Even in Lake County.

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

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