Backgrounder: Killing Off Townships
by Mark Franke
“That government is best which governs least,” is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson but actually belongs to Henry David Thoreau in his essay on civil disobedience. What Jefferson did say is “the government closest to the people serves the people best.”
Each of these noble sentiments spring to mind regarding a proposal now under consideration in the Indiana General Assembly. The idea is to force the 300 smallest townships in the state to merge under the clarion call for efficiency in government. Even the Indiana Township Association, normally a defender of the democratic nature of township government, is behind it. And according to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, the association’s position is seen as “a way to modernize and maintain the township structure.”
One wonders how a political organization is maintained when the smallest or weakest members of the group are allowed or even encouraged to die off. If we agree with Jefferson’s statement about government institutions needing to be closest to those governed in order to properly “serve” (note he didn’t say “govern”), how do we reconcile eliminating the smallest units of government, which by definition are closest to those they exist to serve?
It sounds like the Indiana Township Association is trying to stanch the bleeding that has been occurring in township government for decades. Township fire departments are rarities these days, perhaps for sound fiscal reasons but one is pressed to show cases where consolidation reduced payroll and overall budgets. Welfare has been taken away from many of them, removing the personal knowledge of the applicant’s circumstances and turned over to a professional bureaucracy at the county level.
Township schools are gone, forced into consolidations in the 1950s and 1960s by a state government several levels away from those affected and all in service to the “bigger is better” mantra. Ask rural township residents how much control they as taxpayers have over the quality and direction of their current schools. Perhaps checking attendance at the “local” high school basketball games would serve as an instructive proxy.
But this must be a good idea because it is supported by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, right? While one may like to think of the local Chamber as a true grass roots organization, it is difficult to view the state Chamber as such. It is, in the final analysis, a membership organization and directed by the largest business in the state to advance their interests. Is it impolitic to ask why the state Chamber’s members see eliminating small township governments helping the business climate in Indiana?
More instructive is the opposition coming from the Indiana Farm Bureau. Also a member organization dedicated to advancing its members interests, the Farm Bureau does have a not insignificant number of members residing in these small rural townships. They should know firsthand the value of small township government.
So I spoke to a family farmer, a former township trustee involved with helping township farmers file property-tax documents. When asking advice from another government official, here is what he was told (my paraphrase): “Remember that these are your neighbors. Be fair, be honest, but remember you have to live among them.”
Good advice for government officials at any level, but it works best when the official is close to home.
Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the foundation, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.