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Van Til's plea offers ethics, reform lessons

FBI agents seized computers and other items from the office of Lake County Surveyor George Van Til in June 2012.

Lake County Surveyor George Van Til has signed a guilty plea, saving the taxpayers the cost of a trial and prompting yet another discussion about ethics in government and government reform.

Van Til's case is darkly ironic for a number of reasons. Among them is that had local government been reformed, as we have recommended for years, this wouldn't have happened.

Van Til is accused of using his office's employees and resources to get re-elected. Under his plea agreement, made public Monday, he admits to six counts of wire fraud and will pay the county up to $20,000 restitution in return for a shortened sentence.

Six years ago, in December 2007, the bipartisan Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform recommended changes in the structure of local government that would, among other things, make the surveyor position subordinate to the county executive. We support that recommendation.

The surveyor's office provides valuable assistance on drainage issues as well as maintaining section markers. Under Van Til's tenure, the county developed a healthy geographic information system as well.

But the surveyor doesn't set policy.

Had that principle of electing only policy-makers been put in place earlier — removing the surveyor's office from politics — Van Til would not have been accused of a campaign-related crime. 

Let the county executive -- currently, the county commissioners -- hire and fire this and other bureaucrats as needed

Van Til has admitted to straying from the principles any public official should uphold. In this case, it is not only ethically wrong, but also a criminal offense.

This case should be considered a wake-up call for ethics training, but that alarm was first issued years ago. Unfortunately, Lake County officials have yet to make the necessary commitments.

With county government having so many elected department heads, committing to this training might not be as easy as in a city or town, where government is streamlined. But LaPorte County has joined the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, and so should Lake and Porter counties.

There have been many officeholders and government employees in Northwest Indiana convicted of criminal activities that stem from their behavior on the job. Van Til is but the latest official being thrown on that enormous heap.

Obviously, ethics training -- which the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission offers -- is urgently needed.

Also urgently needed is a strong two-party system, with strong candidates from both parties for each office.

Last year, Van Til's Republican challenger used negative campaign tactics that didn't succeed. Next time, and until the surveyor is appointed instead of elected, each candidate should campaign on his or her own selling points. Keep this protracted job interview civil.

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Porter County Government Reporter

Senior reporter Doug Ross, an award-winning writer, has been covering Northwest Indiana for more than 35 years, including more than a quarter of a century at The Times.