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Governor backs court reforms

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Expect some talk of sweeping court reforms in the coming legislative session.

Gov. Mitch Daniels this morning announced plans to move forward with more than a dozen local government reform proposals first unveiled a year ago by a commission, co-chaired by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. That report can be viewed here.

Some of the proposals have already been enacted, and the governor today recommended most of those remaining be considered by the General Assembly in the coming year.

Three court-specific measures that would impact all Indiana counties are: shifting the funding for all trial courts, probation officers, and public defenders to the state; transferring local court clerk responsibilities to the local election board or a newly established county executive; and eliminating all of the township Small Claims courts in Marion County and transferring those courts' duties to the Marion Superior courts.

The funding shift recommendation has been modified slightly from what the commission originally proposed, a change that could impact the timing of any possible reforms.

"Once the state's fiscal circumstances improve, it would make sense for the state to assume the costs of the trial court system over a period of years, including probation officers and public defenders," the recommendation rationale states. "Indiana's courts could operate more efficiently and fairly, ensuring that all citizens have the same access to justice. A transition period would be necessary to allow time for currently serving judges to complete their terms in office."

With the chief justice standing behind him along with a line of commission members and state officials, the governor said these were 16 of the total 27 recommendations made in the Kernan-Shepard report, and taken all together could save taxpayers about $630 million if adopted by the legislature.

Because of the tough budget-setting season in store, Daniels expects the legislation will be introduced in various pieces, rather than one large package.

Among the other changes the governor is recommending:

• Establish a single-person elected county executive to replace the current three county commissioners.

• Each county would have a county council as its only legislative body.

• Responsibilities for administering the duties of the county recorder, treasurer, assessor, surveyor, and coroner would be transferred to the lone county executive. These positions no longer would be elected while county sheriff, clerk, and auditor still would be chosen by voters.

• Create a county-wide body to oversee all public-safety services.

• School districts with less than 1,000 students would have to combine their district central office operations with another district unless they already are part of a county-wide district. After such a consolidation, no high schools may be closed for at least five years.

• Conduct all non-partisan school elections during November in even years.

• Move all municipal elections to even-numbered years.

• Transfer the responsibilities of municipal health departments to the county health department.

• Reorganize library systems by county instead of by municipality.

• Prohibit employees of a local government unit from serving as elected officials on the same local government unit.

• Designate a state office to provide technical assistance to local government.

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