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Another nail in coffin of township governance?

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THE Bartholomew County prosecutor has asked the Indiana State Police to investigate whether the Clay Township trustee misused public funds, and he’ll use the findings to determine whether to file criminal charges.

The investigation was sparked by a State Board of Accounts audit from 2008 to 2010 that alleges that trustee Christa K. Acton used township funds for personal expenses, was overpaid thousands of dollars, paid unreasonable amounts of money to her husband for mowing services, paid the township clerk and the clerk’s spouse — a township board member — thousands of dollars with poor relief money, and did a poor job of keeping records and filing annual reports.

What the audit brings to the spotlight is the question of whether Indiana should continue to have a township government system.

Streamlining Indiana’s system of local government has been an unrealized goal of Gov. Mitch Daniels. He charged former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard with examining the local government system and recommending ways to make it leaner and more efficient.

The report, released in 2007, concluded that Indiana has too many local governments. It said Indiana has 1,008 townships in its 92 counties and more than 3,000 independent local governments — including about 2,700 that are authorized to levy taxes.

Kernan and Shepard concluded that many jurisdictions are too small to provide the critical mass necessary to support the level and extent of services demanded or to realize any economies of scale.

Many townships, such as Clay, have a small pool of residents from which to elect a trustee and advisory board members. Finding people who want these jobs and who have the skills necessary to do the jobs well narrows the pool of candidates further — possibly leaving township residents with the option of electing someone who isn’t qualified for the position or views it as an opportunity to run their own little fiefdom, operate in secrecy and reward family members or friends.

That’s a bad situation for township residents and one that could be avoided by reforming the state’s township government system. The Kernan-Shepard report recommended that services performed by township personnel should be transferred to county governments.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman has been traveling around the state talking to local officials about government reforms. The discussions have included two options for streamlining township government: eliminating township advisory boards and moving fiscal authority to the county; and aligning townships with the three existing county commissioner districts and electing one administration for all the townships contained in the district.

Indiana’s township government system is more than 100 years old and is showing its age. Times change, and so should it.


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