The News-Enterprise: Magistrates Weigh In On Unification Concept

Majority advocate allowing public to vote on idea

The following article by Marty Finley first appeared in The News-Enterprise on August 19, 2011. The full, online version can be seen here:

Hardin Fiscal Court will be the first government body to meet with Hardin County United officials about creation of a unification review commission.

Magistrates last week did not endorse the concept of unification, but many said they believe voters should have the right to choose.

The review commission, which could be formed to draft a government charter, must have the county’s consent because state law requires at least one city to merge with a county to form a unified local government.

District 8 Magistrate Garry King said fiscal court has the power to stop unification in its track if it chooses.

“If we say no, it’s done,” he said.

But King said he does not believe such a move would be fair to city councils that would lose the chance to consider participation in the commission.

“I think probably we need to at least give city councils the opportunity to look at it,” he said.

District 3 Magistrate Lisa Williams said she’s eager to meet with HCU and advance to the next step in the study of unification. As a proponent of economic development, Williams said she sees great potential in unifying governments because the county potentially could be home to the third-largest city in the state, immediately improving its profile.

“I’m very impressed with all of the work they’ve done,” Williams said of HCU. “I think the research is very helpful.”

District 4 Magistrate Fred Clem said he has only received one phone call directly opposing unification but said the issue has created a buzz in his district.

“There is a lot of water cooler talk going on,” he said.

Clem said the discussion has promoted unity, pointing to the willingness of several elected officials to meet and openly discuss unification during a recent forum at Hardin Memorial Hospital.

Clem said he favors exploring the possibility of unification through formation of the commission. He said the conclusion may be that government is better as is, but the county could identify avenues to form partnerships and consolidate services without fully unifying governments.

“It’s not something I can begin to say yes or no to yet,” he said.

District 6 Magistrate E.G. Thompson said he believes unification could remove artificial boundaries and create a synergistic effect, making each segment of the county stronger together.

“I’m convinced the stronger each one of us is, the better all of us are,” Thompson said.

But he said many who have spoken to him are fearful of change and concerned unification will lead to the loss of identity and a diminished voice. These arguments have been spearheaded by members of Radcliff City Council, which plans to opt out of the unification review commission.

Thompson said change can be painful, but he views the discussion from an outlook of abundance rather than scarcity. Instead of worrying what one can lose, he said, he views it as a potential way to gain more for the entire county.

But Thompson said the county may not be ready at this stage.

“We may be 10 years or so ahead of ourselves,” he said.

Other magistrates were mixed in their reaction to the unification study and said their constituents had voiced more opposition than approval.

District 2 Magistrate Doug Goodman, who serves the Radcliff area, said the response to unification in his district has been overwhelmingly negative with only a handful of people wanting to pursue the creation of the commission.

Goodman also said he has questions about the county’s allocation to Hardin County United and wants to make sure the organization is held fiscally accountable and produces a return on the investment. Hardin County Judge-Executive Harry Berry on Friday said the county has allocated about $15,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year budget for the HCU initiative.

“HCU is (and) has been funded with local match funding from county and city governments to Office of Economic Adjustment grant funding provided through One Knox and the Lincoln Trail Area Development District,” Berry responded in an e-mail.

District 5 Magistrate Bill Wiseman said he is torn on the topic. On one hand, he’s not convinced unified government is a better method, but he said he does recognize some benefits.

Wiseman said most constituents who have contacted him have voiced concerns that the county is too widespread for one government to manage.

But Wiseman said he does not feel like he should be the one making the decision.

“I think we (should) give people the right to vote on it,” he said.

District 7 Magistrate Dwight Morgan also said taxpayers of the county should have the right to vote on unification. Morgan missed two forums held by HCU because of the flu, but said he is trying to research and educate himself on the issue.

“I’m not really for it or against it,” he said Friday. “I just need more information.”

Morgan said several residents have approached him about the possibility of losing distinctiveness of communities they’ve grown up in, specifically in rural areas. Morgan said his constituents have witnessed the troubles at the state and federal levels of government and worry about a larger government locally.

“At least in my district, they’re afraid of losing their community identity,” he said.

District 1 Magistrate Roy Easter said most of the residents in his northern Hardin County district oppose it. He planned to meet with constituents in West Point to discuss unification this weekend, he added.

Easter said he needs to learn more so he can make an informed decision.

“Me personally, I don’t have all of the facts,” he said. “I don’t think all of the information has been laid out on the table.”

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