March 6, 2012

Local Unigov in reverse?

One of the most progressive things — perhaps the most progressive thing — that leaders in our state’s largest community ever did is one that continues to pay dividends more than 40 years later.

When Indianapolis and Marion County officials decided to join forces and try a concept called Unigov, they gave up something every power-seeking politician craves — authority and legitimacy. What they came up with was a form of government that had never been successfully introduced before in Indiana.

In a word, it was bold — so much so that few counties anywhere have done it since. They called it Unigov, a concept that would eliminate most of the barriers between city and county government so that everyone could share in the mutual interests of not only governing Indianapolis, but expanding it beyond its corporate limits to the rest of Marion County.

To the generations of Hoosiers who have been born since the Colts moved to Indianapolis, there is somewhat of a notion that the Colts added legitimacy to Indianapolis as a bona fide metropolitan area.

But Unigov gave Indianapolis the kind of legitimacy it needed to get to the point when the Colts considered Indianapolis a new home. A city-county council was formed. Joint planning and zoning began to map out a city with a plan instead of a state capital simply put in the middle of the state because of its geographic location. Industry and economic development followed suit, transforming the city from one called “Naptown” to one that woke up to a new future few American cities rival.

At the other end of the spectrum of government with fewer overlaps, more streamlining and efficiency and a better use of resources such as taxes that can focus an entire region on its future, there are communities that are the anti-Unigov. City and county officials can’t seem to agree on sharing costs or services, let alone what the future of the community should be or which entity should steer it.

Regardless of party affiliation, Logansport and Cass County officials have to be on the same page. Sure, leaders on both sides can have arguments from time to time, and there is nothing wrong with disagreeing in a practical way. It may not matter to people on either side of the aisle or on either side of city and county government if they share an animal control officer, a building commissioner, economic development efforts, fire protection, central dispatching of police and fire calls, ambulance services or a host of other things.

But when officials from other communities or economic developers view ongoing disagreements in a community, they will no doubt talk about Logansport and Cass County and say we simply can’t get our act together, or we don’t play well together. At the end of the day, that image doesn’t bode well for attracting not only new businesses and industries to Logansport, but people who want to live here just because they’re looking for a decent place to live.

Maybe Unigov would never work for Logansport and Cass County, but part of the beauty of the working relationship the city and county have enjoyed in the past 25 years is that several hurdles have been cleared.

When it looked as if a four-lane highway wouldn’t happen for Logansport, city and county leaders along with local legislators did everything they could to stand together behind the concept. When Federal-Mogul officials considered whether to retain operations here or consolidate them in the Sun Belt state of Tennessee, city and county leaders put an imaginary belt around themselves and did all they could to keep Federal-Mogul a local mogul in employment.

When Wilson Foods closed in 1994, city and county leaders again did all they could to bring investors back to an old pork production plant, effectively retooling it for the 21st century and guaranteeing the plant would continue to be a strong link in the nation’s food chain.

When an industrial park needed to be built and when an airport had to be expanded, city and county leaders worked together, realizing that individually, they couldn’t accomplish goals as efficiently separately as they could by joining forces.

When city and county officials can’t agree on sharing the costs of a building commissioner to guarantee safe structures and legitimate construction practices in the community as is the case now, it builds something else — a wall between the city and the county. In a sense, that kind of check and balance system is good for local government accountability, but it can be detrimental not only in the long run for the integrity of local buildings, but for the general impression people have of this community as a whole.

When county government employees are not patients at a county hospital, it says something that may be even more convincing than the best marketing brochures and commercials any hospital marketing firm can produce.

Perhaps Ben Franklin said it best when he said we must all hang together or we most certainly will hang separately. Put another way, imagine what Indianapolis and Marion County would be like today if city and county officials had the attitude that they were opponents who should keep on their respective sides of the city limits.

The reverse of Unigov means a lack of cooperation or even of a dialogue about projects that require joint funding, support and opinions that show state and federal leaders that the community in fact has its act together and has a shared vision of what’s best for everyone.

Unfortunately, government, much like every car produced in this country, has a gear called reverse, and without working relationships between city and county officials, there can only be Unigov in reverse.

• Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached through the newspaper at

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