Government and Media & Marketing

NOTIONS: A primary primer on the need for simpler government

May 1, 2006

Do you know the name Kelly Bentley or Derek Redelman? Michael Brown or Michael Rinebold? How 'bout Barbara C o l e m a n - K n i g h t , Barry Campbell, Judie Williams, Karon Williams, Maureen Jayne, Milton Baltimore Jr. or Olgen Williams?

Even if you've heard these names, do you know these people's backgrounds, what experience they bring to the table, what they preach and practice?

Do you know who, if anyone, supports them financially and what, if anything, they've promised in return?

If you live where I live, in the heart of Indianapolis, these people are running for elected office this week. Among other things, they seek the opportunity to control nearly half my property tax bill (to be exact, 47.74775 percent of the $3,582.68 I must shell out by May 10). Yet these are not candidates for mayor or city-county council, governor or state legislature.

They're candidates for school board.

And unless one has lots of leisure time to attend school board meetings in person or watch school board meetings on cable TV, it's difficult to learn much about the incumbent candidates.

And unless one has lots of leisure time to seek out and attend candidate forums, read candidate profiles in the newspaper, dig through political contribution reports or search for candidate blogs and Web sites, it's even more difficult to scope out the challengers.

And if you live in a sprawling suburb, as I did for many years, the lack of in-depth media coverage makes it even more difficult to know who's running-and running for-some of the more-obscure, less-scrutinized and less-accountable offices in our multilayered, highly complex government.

To be sure, there will be a few prominent names on the ballot in this week's primary. U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar is running unopposed on the Republican side. Our U.S. Rep., Julia Carson, faces four challengers on the Democrat side. Some of our state senators and state representatives, on both sides of the aisle, also face primary opponents.

And while there have been studies showing that more Americans can name the finalists on "American Idol" than can name officeholders at this level, it's still possible-at least possible-that with a bit of newspaper reading, TV viewing, Web surfing, blogging or old-fashioned conversation, citizens who so desire can still learn about these candidates, what they stand for and how they might vote on various issues.

But on May 2, we're also supposed to choose from among a plethora of candidates for superior court judge, circuit court clerk, county auditor, county recorder, county sheriff, township trustee, township assessor, small claims court judge, small claims court constable and, yes, school board.

Of its own accord, such an overwhelming list of names seeking little understood offices would be enough to make many eligible voters say, "I have NO clue" and discourage them from voting. But adding to the ill informed, why-bother electorate is a downward trend in newspaper readership and TV news viewership, and-thanks to the Internet-a redefining of "community" away from the geographic boundaries that define local politics and toward a global assortment of niche interests that make "local" increasingly irrelevant.

Add two more factors-a distrust of government leaders in general and, thanks to hanging chad, controversial recounts and other failings at the polls, a distrust of the electoral process in particular-and we have a ready-made recipe for low turnout, especially in an off-year election.

And so, because we've made the bureaucracy so complex and the electoral process so difficult to follow-at a time when fewer and fewer people have the hours or desire to follow them in the first place-a tiny fraction of the electorate will decide who controls the governmental agenda, laws and costs for years to come.

I understand checks and balances-the blessings of dividing governmental responsibility and accountability among executive, legislative and judicial branches.

And having worked in and for local and state government (and the private sector, for that matter), I understand the desire among some leaders to assign certain decisions to elected or appointed boards, commissions, task forces, etc.

But when we independently elect so many budget-making, expense incurring individuals and panels-at a time when the news media can't or won't afford to play watchdog over them-we lose accountability to people we've never heard of and encourage the kind of finger-pointing that leaves everyone blaming everyone else and no one with a desk bearing Harry Truman's "The Buck Stops Here."

We've talked a lot about government consolidation in this city. And we've come up short on implementation through two legislative sessions with a few folks crying "power grab."

But with a simpler, clearer system-one that reduces the number of layers and elected offices while establishing an easier-to-scrutinize executive branch-what we'd have is an accountability grab, with citizens and taxpayers, not a cacophony of little-known officeholders, taking the tighter rein.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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