The News-Enterprise: HCU Not Swayed By Recent Opposition

Group says scrapping unification would be ‘premature’

The following article by Marty Finley first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 31, 2011. You can view the full, online version here:

Proponents of an idea to study unified local government said they are not discouraged by initial opposition to consolidation.

Hardin County United officials described talk of rejecting ordinances to establish a unification review commission as “premature” and “shortsighted.”

Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry, chairman of the HCU steering committee, said he was “disappointed” by reactions from elected officials who say they have no interest in unification. The majority of Elizabethtown and Radcliff city councils have come out in opposition.

Berry said the opposition is presumptuous and “shortsighted.” It shows a “lack of open mindedness” and disinterest in pursuing ways the entire county could capitalize on synergy built in recent years. Berry said he believes elected officials are called to be stewards of the present, but also should have a vision for the future.

“If you’re not willing to at least look at what you can be, where’s it going to leave you?” Berry said Tuesday. “It’s going to leave you right where you are and people are going to pass you by.”

He also said elected officials who opt out of the commission essentially are saying their residents should not vote on the matter.

Berry said he thinks the greatest asset of unification is creation of jobs and a stronger profile for economic development. He said Hardin County needs the elevated status to build a larger job base by attracting more industries. Consolidation, he said, would make the county more “formidable” and give more weight to its collective resources.

“It’s not the size of the county that changes,” he said. “It’s how you’re perceived.”

Berry also disagreed with the notion identity will be lost if unification is approved.

“Our identities are not our governments,” he said. “If that was the case, Glendale, Cecilia and White Mills wouldn’t have an identity because they have no governments.”

HCU consultant Luke Schmidt, whose firm conducted the unification study, was unmoved by the criticism, saying it is premature to reject the idea this early in the process. Schmidt said HCU has about 24 formal engagements lined up to address unification through mid-October, which illustrates interest in the concept.

Schmidt said opposition is understandable because it is a radical concept requiring significant changes.

One source of the impasse is a murky take on 2006 legislation passed by the Kentucky General Assembly allowing a county to merge with consolidated cities. HCU has said it is unsure if the majority vote of a city would be honored under the current law if the majority of the county votes yes. In other words, a city could become part of a consolidated government even if the majority of its residents desire to stay independent.

HCU has said this is unacceptable and is appealing to the state to clarify or change the law to flesh out the language. Schmidt, a lobbyist since the 1980s, said he believes an amendment to the law would sail through the legislature if proposed. Schmidt on Tuesday said HCU is working with the Hardin County legislative delegation to clear up the confusion.

But local officials have criticized the volunteer organization for pressing forward on unification without fully comprehending the law, with some going so far as to call the action “irresponsible.”

Schmidt reinforced Tuesday that voters are the only ones who can approve unification and creating a unification review commission will not force anyone to approve unification.

Furthermore, Schmidt said HCU will abandon the idea if it is unsuccessful in having the law revised.

“If they vote no, in our view, no means no,” he said of cities.

HCU also has told Hardin Fiscal Court to install safeguards in an ordinance authorizing the commission’s formation that would restrain the study until the law is clarified.

Schmidt said HCU has been open and transparent about the confusion and it would be “suicidal” to push the issue and not ensure the law is concrete on the matter.

“We will not do anything (that) could result in a city’s vote not being respected,” he said.

Hardin Circuit Judge Ken Howard, chairman of the HCU governance subcommittee, said he is not surprised by the opposition because new ideas can be hard to swallow.

“No, I’m not surprised,” he said Tuesday. “Most people are cautious people.”

Rejection of radical change is an aspect of human nature, he said.

“I think that’s just a natural reaction to it,” he said.

Howard said HCU will continue to educate communities, seek out feedback and ultimately allow the cities to vote in the best interests of their communities.

“We have to be patient and allow that to happen,” he said.

Howard has said unification would need either Elizabethtown or Radcliff to join to be viable and the ideal situation would include both. Howard said he believes each of the cities will give it more consideration and vote based on careful study rather than initial reaction.

HCU plans to formally meet Sept. 12 with Elizabethtown City Council. No date has yet been confirmed for Radcliff, Howard said. Berry also has asked Hardin Fiscal Court to consider an ordinance authorizing the unification review commission this month.

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