If this seems like a quiet primary election season, you don't live in St. Joseph Township. Contests for township trustee and advisory board have drawn 15 candidates – and that's just on the GOP ballot. Six Democrats are seeking St. Joe Township posts.
Marion Township, on the other hand, has only one Republican candidate for a township board position and one Democrat seeking the trustee's post.
Such is the contrast in township-level government, where the roles of trustee or board member vary widely depending on the character of the township. Above, Wayne Township board member Bruce Stier makes a case for the purest form of grassroots government. And the interest in township posts in St. Joseph Township and a handful of others confirms strong interest in preserving it, although the case for modernizing state government is solid.
Since the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform recommended in 2007 that Indiana's 1,008 township governments be eliminated, the state has managed to trim the number by only three. Legislation proposed in the last session of the General Assembly would have required the 308 townships with a population of fewer than 1,200 to combine with another or be absorbed by a larger township. In spite of support from the Indiana Township Association, it ran into problems within the Republican caucus over questions regarding fire equipment and funding.
Legislators, some of whom began their own political careers in township-level government, haven't been eager to take on the consolidation fight, even though the strongest support for it comes from the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The economic case for consolidation is strong: It would eliminate more than 4,000 elected positions.
“I find it interesting that so many people are running for positions the legislature has been trying for years to remove,” observed Steve Shine, chairman of the Allen County Republican Party. “I really think their running for office is heartfelt. It is certainly the most basic of grassroots politics.”
The GOP chairman said township candidates are dedicated, as well. He noted the largest group of participants in a party-sponsored sexual harassment seminar were people seeking township offices.
“They are interested in politics and they are interested in issues,” he said. “Township offices allow people to identify with a specific issue. It's also a very manageable job.”
In St. Joe Township, the issue is fire protection. Incumbent Trustee Sarah Gnagy's challengers in the Republican primary include David Ringer, St. Joseph Township Fire Rescue chief, and Jeremy Bush, president of the Fort Wayne firefighters' union.
Since annexation went into effect decades ago, the city has taken over fire protection services for all but a handful of unincorporated areas in the township. Gnagy's father, former Trustee Richard Uhrick, wisely disbanded the fire department, establishing the fire rescue corporation and contracting with Three Rivers Ambulance Authority for EMS services. The township is now well covered by the Fort Wayne Fire Department, but a small but insistent group continues to push for duplicating fire protection services there.
The crowded field in the St. Joseph Township races reflects the heated disagreement on the issue. It also can serve as an argument for why it's time for lawmakers to take another look at consolidation. Where services can be provided more efficiently and cost-effectively by the city, why is St. Joe Township still fighting over fire protection?
Karen Francisco is the editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette