You’ll head to the polls Tuesday to vote on candidates for county commissioner and county council, but, if elected, they’ll appoint many other people who make decisions that shape your neighborhood.
Elected officials in the counties, cities and towns appoint hundreds of people to local government boards. The taxes you pay for fire districts and libraries are managed by appointed boards, which can choose to use those funds to build a new building or purchase new equipment from fire trucks to e-books.
Some boards can hire and fire staff that mow and maintain plants in local parks, or recommend the new police officer who will replace one that’s retired. Appointed officials control the spending of tax-increment financing district money that goes to major projects such as North Main Street in Franklin or Worthsville Road in Greenwood.
If you appeal the assessment on your home, need permission to build a shed close to your property line or want to get a street closed for a block party, all of those decisions are made by appointed boards.
The people you elect — mayors; town, city and county council members; and commissioners — make most of those appointments. But in some cases those appointed members are selecting other people to serve with them or serve on other local boards, too.
For example, two appointed boards each select a person to serve on the Franklin Development Corp. board. The two people appointed, along with three others named by the mayor and city council, then select two more people from the community to serve with them.
The person you’ll elect this year to serve as county commissioner is partly responsible for naming more than 50 people to a variety of boards. The county council candidates on the ballot this year will take part in selecting 15 people who serve in positions helping run local libraries, running the county park, or considering plans for that next big subdivision in the Center Grove area.
They’re controlling big money, too. The appointed board for the White River Township Fire District manages $6.5 million in spending each year, and the Johnson County Public Library board controls another $6.4 million. City redevelopment commissions also make decisions on major spending, such as $10 million in tax dollars for a new pool in Greenwood or $8.3 million to rebuild North Main Street in Franklin.
‘Put trust in those folks’
Elected officials try to look for a mix of people with different skill sets when making appointments. For example, when choosing members for a fire district board, they want to find people who have backgrounds as firefighters but also in business, such as bankers or accountants who can help with the financial aspect of running a department.
The Johnson County Library Board tries to keep a mix of people from different parts of the county, so viewpoints from different communities in White River Township, Whiteland and Trafalgar are represented, library director Beverly Martin said.
Some appointed board members earn small stipends for their service, such as redevelopment commission members in Greenwood. But many positions are unpaid, so elected officials rely on volunteers willing to give their time to helping shape their community.
Board members may serve a term as long as four years, meet multiple times per month, conduct meetings that last for more than an hour and spend time researching new projects or considering new policies.
Elected officials get some reassurance that the people who offer to help are doing it for the community and not for the money or some other motivation, Franklin Mayor Joe McGuinness said.
“I think that the voters trusted in us to make difficult decisions, whether that’s budgeting or board appointments. And they’ve elected us to do that and put trust in those folks, that they’re going to make the right decisions,” McGuinness said.
The jobs can be daunting because of the amount of money the boards can control and wide range of ways they can spend it, Greenwood Redevelopment Commission member Mike Tapp said.
Tapp, who served 16 years as a city council member, is in his first term on the commission, which is funding projects to widen Worthsville Road and build a new city pool. When Mayor Mark Myers was elected, Tapp offered to help out if needed, and the mayor appointed him to the commission.
Tapp wasn’t familiar with everything the redevelopment commission did and is still learning, but he relies on his
35 years of management and accounting experience to help him analyze projects and
weigh the advantages of a particular project.
“Every meeting is an eye-opener and an education. We have a very strong commission,” Tapp said. “It is an absolute wonderful way to give back a little something to the community with the effort that’s put in.”
When naming someone to the more than 20 positions appointed by the mayor, Myers said, he wants to know a person’s background so he can try to fit that to a particular board. For example, a pilot with flight experience can bring that expertise to the city aviation board.
But at the same time, he wants to make sure city boards also have people with financial experience who can help plan spending or come up with ideas for new revenue, he said. He recently appointed Steve Spencer to the city economic development commission, which works to promote new development and also considers incentives such as tax breaks for businesses.
Spencer is leading a growing biotechnology company, Ikotech, and can bring ideas that can help other companies also grow, Myers said.
The county council and commissioners recently have made an effort to get more new people involved on the 25 boards they appoint to, including fire districts, library boards and planning commissions. Instead of just appointing the same people or relying on someone they know, the commissioners now advertise open positions to try to find people who haven’t served before, Commissioner Ron West said.
That led them to add Cheryl White to the White River Township fire board. She has a financial background that is important for managing the fire district that protects about 35,000 people in 26 square miles, West said.
“If you’re looking for someone on the fire board, you don’t always need a fireman. You need someone with a different skill set. The board isn’t fighting fires,” he said.
Layers of oversight
Different boards also have varying levels of oversight.
A redevelopment commission can spend tax dollars without needing any approval from elected officials in the city. A fire district board can hire new firefighters, purchase new fire trucks and equipment and pay operating costs; but the county council reviews its annual budget, and commissioners have to approve certain decisions, such as whether to allow them to tax residents more to raise money for equipment, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said.
Even though the appointed board has wide flexibility to spend the more than $6 million raised in taxes every year, the commissioners and council still have another check and balance over the board, he said.
Appointments come with a level of trust, since some people are put on a board for a four-year term, and some members can’t be removed after they’re appointed without a cause. McGuinness doesn’t micromanage the people he appoints but expects them to use their experience to make decisions they think are best.
That doesn’t always mean they will agree with him or the city council, and having some of those differing viewpoints can be beneficial to the city, he said. McGuinness is confident that they try to make the right choices for Franklin because a major mistake could end up affecting them, too.
“It’s important to note almost all of those folks are residents of Franklin. If they’re making a decision, it can negatively impact them as well,” he said.