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  • Last modified 190 days ago (Jan. 4, 2024)

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New political math: addition by subtraction

Whether they loyally love or logically loath Donald Trump, conservatives tend to share a central belief: When it comes to government, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Alas, Marion County must be full of liberals. We constantly seem to be increasing the size of government. The City of Marion has expanded from three commissioners to five council members. The county was so pleased with commissioners whom we tongue-in-cheek called Curly, Larry, and Moe that it decided to add Curley Joe and Shemp to make five.

What’s with the number five, anyway? In China, five is unlucky, reminding people of tasks or goals not achieved. Three, on the other hand, is lucky, bringing good fortune.

It certainly has brought that to McPherson. Nearly everyone looks at our neighbor to the west as a model for vitality — low taxes, low utility bills, tremendous economic growth.

For more than a century, McPherson has operated under what’s called a “pure” commissioner form of government, exactly as provided for under state law.

It has a mayor and two other commissioners. Each has a specific area of responsibility, just as Marion did when it had a mayor in charge of police, a commissioner in charge of finance, and a commissioner in charge of public works — people who could be chosen for their expertise, not whether they were a member of a certain church or club or had kids of a certain age.

For decades, outside lawyers and others who siphon money off local governments have tried to get McPherson to change. But McPherson has remained steadfast in not fixing what wasn’t broken.

Marion, on the other hand, succumbed to such pressure nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s no small coincidence that the city started going downhill at that point.

We’ve had nothing but bickering since we abandoned our commission form of government and created a Frankenstein’s monster of charter ordinances that have featured a larger council and a succession of city administrators with no genuine experience doing such jobs.

Letting hundreds of thousands of dollars slip through its fingers by not investing its cash reserves in interest-bearing accounts is just the latest shortcoming. Why would appointed bureaucrats, many of whom don’t even live within the city, care that taxes could be reduced? With none of the five council members having specific responsibility for city finances, why would the question even be raised?

There are other reasons to consider going back to a three-member commission. In analyzing a rejected attempt to get McPherson to change its form of government six years ago, its city attorney noted pros and cons of a three-member commission vs. a five-member council.

A larger council, he wrote, might represent more diverse views (something Marion has no trouble finding), but it also holds the potential to reduce openness in government. With five on a council, members can meet secretly in groups of two and scheme what the city will do. With three members, everything must be done in the open because no two commissioners may talk about government business anywhere but in a public meeting.

Marion’s council and city attorney already agreed a year ago that the charter ordinances creating its five-member governing body have been so messed up over the years that they probably aren’t legally functional.

With a new council coming in, now is the time to reconsider whether three commissioners, each with specific responsibilities who must come together to implement changes, is better than a system in which the powers of the mayor and city administrator are so vague and confusing that they can be abused.

Likewise, with the appointment of a county administrator, Marion County should strongly consider moving back to having three commissioners instead of five.

Not only would it save some of the $100,000 cost of hiring an administrator. It also would get rid of terrible gerrymandering that attached the north half of Marion as an isolated island to a district that otherwise focuses on the rural northern tier of the county.

We would have preferred a system in which the elected county clerk automatically would be deemed the county administrator. That’s how things informally worked years ago. But we got the next best thing in having the current clerk tabbed for the administrator position.

Her experience, hard work, and dedication to what’s right, not just what’s expedient, will serve her and the county well— especially if commissioners give up micro-managing and let her supervise all employees other than elected officials.

That should reduce commissioners’ workload enough that we can go back to three commissioners and trim marathon meetings down to a point at which average citizens could afford to set aside the time needed to serve.

We may need to drain the swamp in Washington and chip away at the Deep State. But before we decide whether to make America great again, shouldn’t we devote some effort to making Marion and Marion County as great as they can be?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Jan. 4, 2024

 

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