Faultless Says Geist Should be Included in Referendum
By Bill Fouts
As the Town of Fishers approaches a population of 70,000 residents, some feel it is time to drop “Town” from its moniker and become a city with an elected mayor.
City proponents say adopting the city government model would make elected officials more accountable to voters, provide better checks and balances and improve economic development opportunities. Those favoring the town government model point to Fishers’ rapid growth over the last decade, low tax rates, high achieving schools and national recognition of the town’s high quality of life as evidence that the current system is working well.
Earlier this year the Fishers Town Council appointed a 44-member study committee representing various community interests with former Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter serving as an impartial facilitator. The committee’s task was to dissect the issues and make recommendations.
Over the course of nine town hall meetings, the committee heard presentations of the pros and cons of city government from representatives of over a dozen Indiana cities and towns, as well as Highland Park, Ill. The meeting generated approximately 100 pages of minutes.
“In my experience, this is the most extensive study of its kind in Indiana,” Carter said.
Committee members have until Monday to submit comments on a draft report prepared by Carter. He will then make revisions based on the comments before submitting a final draft to the Fishers Town Council.
City government proponent Greg Purvis, an attorney who served on the study committee, also chairs City Yes Now, a political action committee that is pushing a petition drive to place the issue before voters through a referendum. He says much support is coming from soon to be annexed Geist residents.
Purvis says Fishers has outgrown the current town council form of government. The population has more than doubled since the last time the matter went before the voters in 1998. In addition, Fishers’ current population is more than twice that of the next largest Indiana community operating under a town council.
While the seven-member town council technically represents districts, each member is chosen at-large from the entire voter pool with each candidate appearing on every ballot. As such, Purvis says voters do not have a direct say in which council member represents their neighborhoods and interests. Under a city government model, six council members would be elected by voters in their districts, and three would be chosen at-large.
“It increases democracy,” Purvis said.
Additionally, Purvis says an elected mayor is directly accountable to all residents. Such accountability puts a mayor in a better position to define and articulate a clear vision and objectives as opposed to a town council president selected from the town council by the council members themselves.
Moreover, Purvis argues that the town government model puts both legislative and executive authority in the hands of the town council and thus diminishes checks and balances of the town council’s policies.
Fishers Town Council President Scott Faultless refutes these claims and says those seeking a wholesale changeover to a city government model should be careful what they ask for.
“I think what we have been doing has worked well,” Faultless said.
Fishers boasts one of the lowest municipal tax rates in the state. According to data posted on the town’s Web site, Fishers’ tax rate is the lowest in Hamilton County. Compared to other Indiana communities with similar populations, Fishers’ tax rate is between 166 percent and 332 percent lower. In addition, of the 585 cities and towns in Indiana only 146 municipalities have lower tax rates. Of those 146 communities, the average population is a mere 712 residents.
Faultless says under a city government model, the mayor has primary responsibility for developing the municipal budget and that the city council has little control over how funds are spent once a budget is adopted. He fears tax rates would likely increase if Fishers adopts the city government model.
“The mayor can do whatever he or she wants to,” Faultless said.
Under the current town government model, the town manager, who is hired by the town council and serves at the council’s direction, has limited discretionary spending power. Any spending beyond what has been approved in the budget must go back to the town council and be approved by a majority vote.
However, Faultless stops short of saying he fully opposes any changes to the current form of government.
“I think we can form a government that takes the best of both town and city, a hybrid of the two,” Faultless said.
In the meantime, Purvis says City Yes Now is close to obtaining the 1,400-plus signatures necessary to put a referendum on the ballot. The group hopes to get the referendum on the May 2010 primary ballot, but fears the Fisher Town Council may hold a special election before the Geist annexation goes into effect Jan. 2.
“I talked to a few people who were openly irate about that possibility,” Purvis said.
Faultless refutes that claim saying the town would not have sought the Geist annexation only to cut residents out of the process.
“Even if we could, I don’t think we should,” Faultless said.