Ex-member: Township board 'bored by the budget'

February 11, 2008

Although he collects an average $6.9 million each year for poor relief, mostly from taxes, Center Township Trustee Carl Drummer is rarely asked to explain his finances.

Drummer's budget is filed—unread—each year in the Indianapolis City Controller's office. The 66-employee Indiana Department of Local Government Finance reviews it, along with budgets from every other taxing entity in the state. Year-end reports go to the State Board of Accounts, a 282-worker agency that conducts 2,700 to 3,000 audits of Indiana counties, cities, towns, libraries and schools each year in addition to auditing Indiana's 1,008 townships.

That makes the seven-member township board the primary check on Drummer's authority. Elected every four years and paid about $6,200 a year, members are public officials—several of whom have held their board seats for decades—but finding information about them isn't easy.

No biographies are available from the Marion County Clerk, who oversees local elections. The outdated Center Township Web site, www.centergov.org, only lists their names. That means when most voters go to the polls, they likely don't know who they're voting for.

Drummer told IBJ he'd pass along repeated requests to interview board members, but no one responded to those or messages left at several members' homes or workplaces.

As far as qualifications go, township board members don't boast the types of legal or financial credentials commonly associated with boards who manage millions of dollars. One is an administrative assistant. Drummer said another works as a court bailiff. The roster also includes a UPS employee and a crime scene examiner.

"The qualification is they got more votes than the other guy," said Drummer's Chief Financial Officer Alan Mizen.

Modern not-for-profit boards average 15 or 16 members, said Ruth Purcell-Jones, president of locally-based Leadership Ventures, which trains board members. In new organizations, boards often are dominated by people with a passion for the mission, she said. But as they mature—and as their financial assets grow—most seek attorneys, CPAs and business executives to provide some financial expertise.

"You definitely want folks with passion, but I'm uncomfortable saying it's either or. I think you want both," she said. "You want folks who have the passion, but also the money management experience. If you've got that much investment, and that level of financial resources you're managing, that is part of your mission: managing those resources."

Center Township's board meets at least four times a year. IBJ reviewed minutes of every meeting since 1997 and found that financial details were seldom discussed at length.

One exception was Oct. 30, 2001, when board member George Farley asked whether an $8 million to $9 million surplus could be used to either reduce the township's tax rates or to increase the amount of aid its trustee distributes.

According to the minutes, Drummer told Farley he was looking at the situation "from an accountant point of view," which he said doesn't necessarily apply to poor relief.

"If we ask for less money, the state Board of Tax Commissioners may say we needed less money all along, which could lead to us receiving less than requested in the future and finding ourselves needing more," Drummer said in the minutes. "You use what you get against future problems."

State Rep. Jon Elrod, a Republican, got his political start on the Center Township board in 2004 and now is running for Congress against the late U.S. Rep. Julia Carson's grandson. He said his two years on the board was an eye-opening experience.

On Jan. 20, 2005, in his second meeting on the board, Elrod attempted to change procedures so that members would receive board materials like the budget and annual report before voting on them at their meetings—one of the most basic steps for good board governance.

But his fellow board members balked at Elrod's suggestion. The minutes show then-board President Linda Journey pushed his motion off for another meeting. The board didn't meet again for almost eight months.

When Elrod attempted to introduce his motion again, Journey said she'd misplaced her copy, and said it couldn't be considered because it wasn't on the advertised agenda.

"Elrod disagreed," the minutes said. "Linda Journey explained that this is how the board meetings are handled and when he becomes president, he can run them as he wishes."

The minutes show Journey finally allowed the motion to be introduced on Dec. 19, 2005. Elrod explained it, then Drummer and the rest of the board gave a long list of reasons why giving information to board members in advance was impossible.

None of the other six township board members would second Elrod's motion, so Journey declared it dead.

Elrod left the board in 2006 when he was elected to the state House. He said he's not necessarily in favor of local government consolidation, because bigger doesn't always mean better in government. But he would like to see taxing and spending for every local office—from the public prosecutor to the library to the trustee—considered at once by the City-County Council.

Elrod said he still believes that Drummer and the Township Board are dedicated to helping the needy, and they're efficient in distributing poor relief.

Financial details just weren't their priority.

"When it comes to the budgets ... they're kind of complicated. I got the opinion a lot of the board members weren't particularly interested. They just rubber-stamped it," Elrod said. "They're passionate and engaged people. But they're engaged in the [poor-relief] issues. I think they were bored by the budget."

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