Chris Coyle on Unitary County Government

Chris Coyle has a column in the Perry County News on the county executive portion of the Kernan Shephard recommendations for local government restructuring. In the name of efficiency, the report suggests and Gov. Daniels apparently supports, removing the current three member board of county commissioners and replacing it with a single county executive. In addition, that person would appoint officials like the sheriff, clerk, treasurer, auditor, and coroner; currently elected positions.

I agree with Chris that the costs outweigh the efficiencies. Taking an extreme to illustrate the point, there is little doubt that dictatorships are more efficient than democracies; but there is more to government than efficiency. Chris points out a not unlikely scenario: what if you like the sheriff and even the county executive, but the coroner is just awful. Your choices at that point are pretty much to either put up with the poor public official or vote out the whole administration.

Chris went the high road, elaborating his point. I’ll go the low: Boss Hogg was a sole county commissioner.


  1. says

    You might be right, but I don’t think so.

    Look around at other states. Nobody does it like Indiana does.

    Sure, some states have elected Sheriffs, or prosecutors. But coroners? Why? Auditors? Who the heck knows what they do? Clerks? Get real. Surveyor?!?!??!?! Come on, just kill me now! (That’s what I think when I get to PAGE 9 of the ballot on election day!).

    The real problem I see with the way we structure County government is that is supports machine politics. With so many positions to be filled, with so many of them so obscure and downright trivial, you couldn’t possibly know all the folks that you are voting for. And then there is the issue with the length of the ballot Most people just vote straight ticket and have NO IDEA who they are voting for.

    Better to put all our eggs into that one County Executive basket. At least we can know about that position, about that candidate, etc. It will put a big bite into machine politics in Indiana, especially in Lake County, which has the worst machine in the US.

    Is that undemocratic. Yes it is. But you know what? What do you call a city (Gary) where Dan Coats lost 99% to 1%? You don’t get that kind of lopsided results in a totalitarian dictatorship! That is not democracy, and that mentality is what we are dealing with here in Lake County.

    And, like I said, if we have to temper that county executive with an elected sheriff and prosecutor, that is just fine with me. As long as we are appointing the minor positions, I’m good.

  2. Joe says

    Johnson County, at least, has a seven member county council along with the three county commissioners.

    Given that the county council controls the purse strings, I’m failing to see the harm.

    Then again, Doug, life in Lafayette might be more interesting for you if you had more people trying to jump the Wabash in a Dodge.

  3. Rick says

    The County Council directly controls the purse strings in only 3 counties: Marion, Lake and St. Joseph. For the other 89 counties, the sole power the County Council has is to veto the budget prepared by the County Commissioners.
    The thought process of Kernan Shephard is to have counties operate with the same Legislative-Executive-Cabinet structure of government that cities, states and the federal government use.
    The 3 County Commissioners in the 89 counties, by majority vote, serve as both the Legislative branch and the Executive branch. In my mind, the current County Commissioner style government is much more of a “dictatorship” than Kernan Shephard.
    As Buzzcut points out, most voters don‘t know what the county officeholders do and what they stand for. If the voters don’t like what their county is doing, what strategy can they undertake in order to enact change?
    Is the federal government a “dictatorship”? What is a voter to do if he likes the Secretary of Defense but doesn‘t like the Secretary of the Treasury?

  4. Jack says

    Have some serious questions on this issue and currently unsure how I would vote on it. Believe some education on real world civics is in order for a majority of the population to understand exactly how things operate now before they could make an informed decision about change. Example: some of the above comments differ from my understanding of how things work and I have been involved with both county and town government. Would not have too much problem with changing several offices such as clerk, assessor, auditor, treasurer, surveyor, and recorder as their function is administrative and some good efficiency could likely be achieved by being able to move personnel around as workload needs dictate. For those going to total consolidation of authority may want to look at some place like Indy where the system seems to have as many or more problems than most.

  5. says

    Jack, what did we get wrong, specifically. I am by no means an expert on county government, and would welcome being corrected if wrong.

    I totally agree that Indianapolis is a case study AGAINST unigov. But we are not talking about unigov in this case.

    One more thing. If by chance we get a county executive, I would like to see the number of county council members increased, at least in the large counties. 7 is not enough.

  6. Paul says

    Rick: While the County Council’s role is limited to funding decisions, the County Council does a bit more than just approve the Commissioner’s budget.

  7. Jack says

    My comment would in line with Paul’s statement—the Commissioners are the legislative and administrative branch —the Council is the fiscal branch and can do what ever with the Commissioners (recommended) budget. The Council can change allocations and currently can “look” at all budgets within the county–this will again likely be part of a change that is sought in that the Council would have to actually act on budgets of all governmental units. The tax caps will in some cases soon (and in others perhaps later) mean that adjustments will have to be made to budgets of various units in order to stay within the amount of revenue expected. The Council has line item consideration of the county budget but may have only maximum levy control on other units, but interesting will be the conflict between the county budget and the library budget or fire territory/district or city/town budgets, etc….The members will have to think differently than in the past.
    Also some changes in local government will require several amendments to the Indiana constitution in that several offices are mentioned (those with 2 term limits) while others were created later (and interesting enough whether the coroner should still be allowed to arrest the sheriff, etc.)
    Again, not opposed to the concept but would want to consider the details very carefully.

  8. Paul says

    A couple questions for Doug:

    1) Does that mean that Roscoe P. Coltrane was also elected?

    2) Did Boss Hogg or the Sheriff have to procure extra funds from the County Council every time one of the County’s police vehicles got stuck in the mud, a tree, or wherever?

  9. says

    I’m reasonably certain that Roscoe was appointed by Boss Hogg. Boss Hogg’s powers were variable from episode to episode, much like the conditions of the Duke boys’ probation.

  10. Rick says


    Unigov is relevant to Kernan Shephard only in the fact that the old Commissioners’ Legislative powers were transferred to the City-County Council and most of their Executive powers were transferred to the Mayor of Indianapolis.
    Beyond that, Marion County has the same (and more) archaic County and Township offices as the rest of the counties.

    In Lake and St. Joseph Counties, the Commissioners’ Legislative powers have also been transferred to their County Councils.

    I defer to your experiences with your County Councils.

  11. Akla says

    mitch was upset that when he said “jump” the locally elected officials with power over tax monies did not all say “how high”. He wants to have appointed offices so that one person from the governors office can control all policy at the local and state level. It is that simple. Take away the vote from the people and put the power to appoint in the hads of the very few who are selected by the governor and his party. After he and his ilk get through gerrymandering the map we will be lucky to get honestly elected honest candidates in office ever again. mitch had his people write that report before they ever took input from people and they ignored the input they did receive.

  12. David says

    At one point, the three commissioners had legislative, executive and fiscal responsibility but due to widespread corruption and overspending, county councils (fiscal bodies) were created (1890s) to be a check on the “full-time county government.” County councils allowed for more citizen input on spending priorities. On the other offices, someone needs to perform functions that surveyors, coroners, auditors and other Constitutional officers perform. If those offices and others are removed from the Constitution, they are ripe for appointment from the State. Does a farmer want to contact IDEM on a simple drainage problem or someone he can vote for or against (surveyor). Do you want to file your homestead exemption with your elected county auditor who you kind find in your community or someone at the state department of local government finance. Also, appointed offices will demand a higher salary than an elected official. A single county executive salary, even though elected, will look more like a school superintendent’s salary far outweighing what the 3 part time commissioners earn. With respect for disclosure, I work with county government officials.

  13. Jack says

    David, you hit on a very important topic concerning one aspect of local government reorganization—salaries. Have said before that it is highly unlikely in most counties to be less expensive. Many of the local officials do not serve for the money as much as wanting to be involved. Examples: as you state the county administrator even in a lower population county will have a great deal of responsibility (if we buy the whole plan) and thus will likely command a salary of $100,000 plus with benefits, employing qualified people to serve as auditor, or treasurer, etc. will possibly become professional persons and thus not willing to work for salaries in the $40,000 range, etc. Competition for personnel (all positions) will likely become a point of going beyond county boundaries (as is done with other professional positions) thus could become a highly competitive situation. Locally once tried to get position of county engineer for covering a wide variety of tasks but particularly involving highway department—they would consider IF we could employ for $20,000-25,000—end of attempt.
    Another point will involve how many currently locally functions will state either move to Indy or regional offices–thus as you state on topic of assessor could see loss of local appeal process or even quick discussion where supply you with back with information on what and why.

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