Q&A with consultant and educator Andrew Downs
For more than a year now, a court-ordered project to expand the Allen County Jail has been a hot topic in Fort Wayne.
In April 2022, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered the county to address understaffing and overcrowding issues at the current jail in Downtown Fort Wayne, saying its capacity must expand to more than 1,000 inmates. The jail is currently considered “operationally full” at 593 inmates, and at times in recent years, its capacity has exceeded 800.
In response, Allen County’s three commissioners, who are charged with managing the project, have said the only way to meet this demand is to build a new jail—and quickly. Since then, nearly every step of the project has prompted public outcry, from its hurried pace of development, to its controversial location, its $350-million price tag and its (proposed) 0.2% local income tax increase.
Last week, about 60 residents attended a public hearing to oppose the income tax, many saying the county has not gathered enough public input for the project to proceed.
But while it’s clear that residents have strong opinions on the county jail, what’s less clear is how Allen County government functions and how the system impacts—and in some ways, contributes to—the situation at hand.
To get a better grasp on the inner workings of county government, we sat down Andrew Downs, a consultant and former political science professor and Director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
When it comes to understanding county government, Downs promises, “it’s easier than you think.”
Here are six questions to guide you through the system’s fundamentals and, hopefully, provide more context to your understanding of the Allen County Jail project.
- Broadly speaking, what are some of the basic differences between the structure of city and county government?
AD: Let’s start with city government. Almost everybody understands city government because it is structured very similar to the federal and state government, where there is a true hierarchy. Alongside the mayor’s executive leadership, city council functions as the legislative, decision-making body, which has a breadth of responsibilities that include fiscal matters, but also zoning issues and topics like dress code for city workers. Some of it is minutia, but city council is there for the whole discussion, and they have voting power.
For these reasons, you might make the argument that city councils tend to be very informed about what’s happening because 1) they meet once a week, and 2) their responsibilities are broad, and therefore, they’re constantly getting information.
Allen County government works very differently. Control is dispersed incredibly. In Allen County, we have three county commissioners (Nelson Peters, Richard Beck, Jr. and Therese Brown), but there’s also county council, the sheriff, the auditor, the recorder, the treasurer, the assessor, and the coroner, etc. And none of them has direct power over the other. So it’s not a hierarchy like we would normally understand.
Now, within each one’s fiefdom, there is a hierarchy. (The clerk is in charge of running the courts, etc.) But there is very little that would allow, say, the county commissioners to force the recorder to do something. They can use the bully pulpit and make a case that the other bodies should do something because of XYZ, but they usually cannot force it.
Interestingly enough, the Indiana Association of Counties once included a statement in their orientation handbook, which said something to the effect of: “Because power is so widely dispersed in county government, all bodies need to be able to work together.”
They have since deleted that line from their handbook, which I find amusing. But it was there, and it speaks to the fact that there is no locus of control in county government, as there is in federal, state or municipal government.
- Tell us more about the relationship between the Allen County commissioners and county council. What does each body do?
AD: Overall, the three Allen County commissioners are in charge of the broadest number of responsibilities. They are not technically above everyone else in the hierarchy of county government. However, they can do things that cause issues for the others because they control all of the buildings, and they are the legislative body. So you might say they are the greatest among equals.
County council (made up of seven representatives) is almost exclusively focused on fiscal matters, like spending and taxes (unlike city council, which is a legislative, decision-making body). Obviously, the purse is an incredibly powerful tool, but it is limited. This narrower scope of work is part of the reason county council only meets once a month. They’re not going to deal with issues, like rezoning, as city council would. That’s what the county commissioners do.
What’s important to note is that county commissioners are both the executive and the legislative bodies of county government, which seems very contrary to what we’re taught in school.
- How does that make sense democratically?
AD: If you had one person who was the executive and the legislative branch, that would violate all of the separation of power stuff we’re ever taught in school. The reason this system can work is because there is a board of three Allen County commissioners. (Some counties have more, but Allen County has three.) And because the power is vested in this board, there is theoretically a check and balance among them.
There are also strict rules county commissioners have to abide by, including that they have to do almost everything in the light of day. They cannot make decisions behind closed doors. This means, it’s very difficult to get a private meeting with more than one of the county commissioners at a time because if two of them are in the same private meeting at once, it could be a violation of the Open Door Law.
- Tell us more about the Open Door Law.
AD: In Indiana, there are Open Door Laws and Open Records Laws. Open door refers to open meetings, and open records refers to being able to access documents. Of course, there are some provisions for certain documents to be kept private and certain meetings to be held without the public present. But technically, no board is allowed to make a decision in an executive (or closed) session.
Because there are only three commissioners in Allen County, the moment you get two of them in the same room for a private meeting, they have to worry about violating the open meetings law.
Now at a social function, like a golf outing, of course, they’re going to be talking to people, and two of them might be there, but that’s a social function, so it doesn’t count as a public meeting. Commissioners can meet for social outings. They can meet for the purposes of gathering information or for discussion purposes. But they can’t make a decision unless they are in a public meeting.
- Is this how things tend to work in other counties and states or just in Allen County?
AD: What you will find is: The majority of states still have a commissioner-like structure in their county governments. So we’re not usual there, but there is a growing shift to a single executive in county government. That structure would look much more like city structure than the county structure we have now, which means we’d understand it better. It would also, theoretically, put more power in one person’s hands, which, theoretically, means faster movement on projects.
In Allen County, there actually was a vote on whether to move to a single-county executive about 10 years ago in 2014, and it failed whoppingly (70.6% no and 29.4% yes). Essentially, under a single-county executive, it would give county council both legislative and fiscal responsibilities (transferring legislative power from the three commissioners to the larger council).
- Can you put some of this information about how Allen County functions into context for us on the current situation with the Allen County Jail project?
AD: While the commissioners have a very broad book of business they have to take care of, it’s important to remember that they do not have the final say on everything, and there are times when they are forced into situations, whether they want to be there or not.
For example, the courts can order things to be done with building maintenance, and the commissioners have to comply. In the case of the Allen County Jail, the commissioners were given certain orders, and they were not given very long to get things done. However, what they didn’t do is spend a lot of time talking with the public about the decision.
I think it’s safe to say the county commissioners underestimated the desire for the community to have input on this project. The county wanted to say: “We were told we had to do this.” But they made that decision in an environment where people were already complaining about the jail. They may have been hoping to say, “The jail is the sheriff’s responsibility,” because of how power is divvied up within county government. But building maintenance is the responsibility of the commissioners.
Essentially, I am sure the sheriff and commissioners knew work was needed at the jail. I am also sure they wish they had started working on this before they were forced into changes through the lawsuit. But again, the separation of power between the sheriff and county commissioners is what created the need for that aforementioned line in the handbook: They have to work together.
This story was originally published in The Local, a weekly email newsletter by Fort Wayne reporter Kara Hackett. Learn more at thelocalfw.com.
Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what’s next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Her work has appeared in The Journal Gazette, Living Fort Wayne, Glo Magazine, FoxNews.com, and The Huffington Post. In January 2018, Kara helped launch Input Fort Wayne, in partnership with its parent company, Issue Media Group based in Detroit, Mich., and a coalition of regional sponsors. Today, she is Managing Editor of its weekly online magazine that uses solutions-based, narrative journalism to connect residents to some of their community’s most visionary people, businesses, and organizations during a time of local media erosion. As part of her work for Input, Kara is also Co-Host of CreativeMornings Fort Wayne, a free monthly breakfast lecture series that brings creative thinkers together in northeast Indiana—and connects them to other creative communities around the world. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.