Sunday, August 25, 2002

Townships not itching to add trustees

Deerfield's initiative on expansion probably won't spark rush

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        DEERFIELD TWP. - The groundbreaking initiative to expand the Board of Trustees from three members to five won't start a trend if other Tristate township leaders have anything to say about it.

        “Being one of three trustees, especially given the size of our township, is an awesome responsibility,” says David Tacosik, on the board of Butler County's fast-growing West Chester Township. “On the other hand, I've been on a lot of committees with 10, 11 or 14 people and, boy, it's hard to get anything done.”

  Of Ohio's 1,309 townships, just 18 have home rule, according to the Ohio Township Association. These expanded powers - which include the ability to borrow money - are a prerequisite for expanding a township's board of trustees to five members. Half the townships that have adopted home rule are in the Cincinnati area:
  • In Hamilton County: Delhi, Springfield, Sycamore and Symmes.
  • In Warren County: Deerfield and Hamilton.
  • In Butler County: Fairfield and West Chester.
  • In Clermont County: Miami.
        A group of Deerfield residents gathered enough petitions this month to let township voters decide Nov. 5 whether to expand the board. The township will be the first in Ohio to consider doing so under a little-noticed provision inserted into the state budget bill in 2001. The option is only open to the 18 townships statewide that have taken on the added powers of home rule.

        Given that, and the fact that Deerfield has 25,515 people - more than neighboring Mason - it only makes sense to widen the perspective on the board, initiative organizers say.

        “Three is just an unnatural number for a community as large as ours is,” resident Dorette Landis told trustees recently. “. . . Maybe it was OK when the trustees only had to worry about cemeteries, ditches and snow removal.”

        But political expert Gene Beaupre says broader representation is a good idea no matter what a township's size: “Five is a manageable number, and I think the challenges facing a range of townships, whether they're rural, suburban or exurban, are becoming increasingly complex.”

        The three Deerfield trustees, on the other hand, say salary and benefits for two more trustees would cost more than $50,000 a year. Expanding the board also could add bureaucracy while making it easier to evade state Sunshine Laws, they say.

        Colleagues are inclined to agree.

        “If we took a poll of our members, I think they'd be overwhelmingly opposed (to five-trustee boards),” says Michael Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association. “I don't think any of us want to mess with the structure of township government. It works fine.”

        That'd be Russ Jackson's vote. An Anderson trustee in Hamilton County for about a decade, he says townships in Ohio have always been about simplicity. They stick to the basics: roads, zoning, fire and police.

        “It is a citizen government,” Mr. Jackson says. “And we don't have much of that left.”

        Township government seems to work for residents, he says, noting that Anderson and other area townships are growing while the city of Cincinnati is losing population.

        Proponents of expansion say larger boards would make it easier for trustees to obey Ohio laws forbidding a majority of a body from discussing government business privately or without advance notice.

        “At least if there's five, two of them can go to lunch without violating the Sunshine Laws,” says Mr. Beaupre, a Xavier University professor.

        But trustees say compliance is not a problem. Deerfield Trustees Randy Kuvin and Bill Morand belong to the same church but go to great lengths to avoid township discussions, Mr. Kuvin says. On the other hand, he says, a five-trustee board could “open the door to back-room political deal-making” because two trustees could legally discuss public business behind closed doors.

        Ultimately, if the township form of government isn't working for a community, maybe the community should abandon it instead of changing it, Mr. Tacosik and Mr. Jackson say.

        “If you really have a problem, then probably what you ought to consider is not going to five trustees, but going to a city form of government,” Mr. Jackson says.

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