The News Enterprise: Hardin County United Presents Unification Plan Fiscal Court

Conditional ordinance may be considered in September

The following article by Marty Finley first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 24, 20011. The full, online version can be seen here:

Hardin County United officials urged Hardin Fiscal Court on Tuesday to participate in creation of a unification review commission.

But Hardin Circuit Judge Ken Howard, who heads HCU’s governance committee, recommended the court consider placing a clause in its ordinance safeguarding local municipalities while HCU pursues clarification of 2006 legislation allowing the creation of a unified local government.

The discussion surfaced as HCU ramps up efforts to form the commission, a body of 20 to 40 members appointed by participating municipalities that would study the concept of unification and produce a charter to present to voters, possibly as soon as November 2012. The group plans to meet with local governments, civic groups and host a series of community forums at local schools in the coming weeks.

Howard said the county could move forward and adopt the ordinance but set limitations on the review commission until the language of the empowering legislation is clarified by the state. HCU wants to confirm a city’s majority vote will be respected if it chooses to opt out of unification. Howard has said cities that participate in the formation of the commission will give their residents’ votes a dual capacity, as each individual vote will represent a city vote but also count toward the overall county total.

However, Howard said HCU is concerned the law could be interpreted that the county’s total vote determined the outcome. Advocates contend that residents of existing cities should be empowered to determine their community’s own direction on unification.

Howard and Luke Schmidt, a consultant to HCU who conducted a unified government study, have said they do not want residents in unincorporated areas to dictate whether a city joins the unified government.

Magistrates were mixed in their reviews of HCU’s recommendation. District 8 Magistrate Garry King said he is hesitant to create the commission while it is unclear whether a city could be forced into unification by a countywide majority vote.

“Why not wait?” he asked.

Howard said the county could delay but, if magistrates choose to move forward with the caveat he suggested, work could continue to gather research and put a foundation in place for the commission. Howard said many of the answers about unification’s potential will not be found if the commission is not formed.

Howard also said the earlier the commission is formed, the longer communities would have to craft a well-researched concept for unification.

Schmidt said he expects legal concerns can be rectified quickly with a simple amendment to the current legislation fleshing out the language, possibly as a Hardin County-only amendment that would not disrupt the rest of the legislation.

Should such an amendment be needed, he expects little to no opposition from state legislators.

District 2 Magistrate Doug Goodman suggested the county put the brakes on the commission and wait until the facts are gathered and clarifications made. Goodman said he had spoken with some state officials who feel cities could be forced into unification against their will under the current legislation if the majority votes in favor of the charter.

“That’s why it needs to be clarified,” Howard responded.

Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry discouraged tabling the idea until after the legislature clarifies the law because work could begin without endangering any city’s sovereignty.

Howard reiterated voters will have to decide to adopt unification.

“Hardin County United cannot create unified government,” he said. “Hardin Fiscal Court cannot create unified government.”

District 6 Magistrate E.G. Thompson said residents typically dislike change until they are uncomfortable with the way the current system works, pointing to the rally for a return to a magisterial form of government.

Thompson said he would hate to see the community be rash in its planning for unification. If there are areas in which efficiencies or services need to be improved, those should be identified and addressed, he said. However, he said the county should proceed with caution.

“We don’t want a false start,” he said.

District 3 Magistrate Lisa Williams inquired more about the makeup of the commission, but Howard said it will not be clear until the number of municipalities participating is determined. While population will influence each unit of government’s membership, he said every municipality will have a minimum of one appointee to the commission.

Howard also said costs accrued by the commission will be divided among the municipalities at a proportion determined by population.

Among its concerns, HCU also has voiced some uncertainty about who could be appointed to the commission. Originally, the volunteer organization believed no elected officials could be appointed to the body. But upon further review, Howard said HCU found the term “citizen member” is only used in reference to the chairman.

Berry suggested Fiscal Court consider an ordinance in September regarding creation of the commission.

“If it’s going to happen at all, the county needs to take the lead on it,” Berry said.

Under state law, a unified county government is required to consist of a county government and at least one consolidated city in the county.

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