By JEROD CLAPP
CLARKSVILLE — Clarksville officials and citizens met Saturday to explore options for making the transition from the oldest town in the Northwest Territory to a city, as well as try to establish some goals.
Clarksville’s City/Town Committee met with an attorney and his associates who helped the town of Fishers, Ind. make the change.
Doug Church, Fishers’ town attorney for the last 33 years, said there are several paths to becoming a city if that’s what Clarksville wants to pursue, but said officials also might be happy with becoming a modified town.
He said whether the Clarksville wants to make the move based on its size or for more practical reasons, officials need to carefully explore whether they want to employ the state’s Government Modernization Act or follow the steps to become a city.
“It is wrong to think that there is some structure within the statute that actually recognizes the values, the strengths or weaknesses of being a particular category of city or town,” Church said. “Fishers went through a two-year exercise … talking endlessly about the values of one or the other form of government. And in the end, they concluded, and I think correctly so, it’s really a question of choice — of what it is you’re trying to accomplish.”
Church said part of the motivation behind the creation of the Modernization Act was to give municipalities more options for its government structure and to get away from outdated state laws and how they are structured.
But in order to go through the change, Clarksville would have to get another neighboring municipality to go into the act with them.
John Gikey, town council member and member of the city/town committee, said Clarksville might consider partnering with Sellersburg or unincorporated municipalities of Jeffersonville if that’s the route they choose. But Church said the Modernization Act would allow Clarksville to keep its town structure with voters electing a council that chooses a mayor, or allow voters to elect the mayor, as well.
“If you just start from the proposition that we don’t have to worry about how far we can ride our horse in half a day, we ought to be looking at Sellersburg and talking to Jeffersonville,” Church said. “We’re not going to spit in the wind, but maybe the more effective thought process is to think about interlocal agreements…”
Church said Clarksville officials can also choose to go in the direction of a third-class city, but that fixes the structure of their government whereas the government Modernization Act allows them to choose.
One of Church’s associates, Brent Borg, said the town could choose to annex neighboring municipalities if it wants to find some efficiencies in areas such as public safety and infrastructure, but it’s a hostile process.
“How long can you hold your breath?” Gilkey asked.
Gilkey said the town also has to consider the effect on constituent tax rates, though he said they may stay where they are.
He said the town’s growth could call for government that plays more of an active role in moving it forward.
“We want to look at how do you more efficiently, on a day-to-day basis, deal with the growth issues and challenges of a town the size of Clarksville and not have to do that with part-time government?” Gilkey said. “How do you get some full-time component of that government that has the power and authority to move forward with vision as opposed to getting together twice a month and trying to get four guys to agree on something?”
Church said whatever issues the town is trying to resolve by becoming a city, they need to know the transition won’t necessarily solve all its problems.
“The second thing I think that is not true is that there’s going to be some kind of a panacea out of any of these options that are available that we’re going to talk about, other than structuring something that meets the specific goals and objectives that you all identified,” Church said.
Getting the word out
The committee will make a recommendation to the town council on which direction to take and whether to put the city/town vote on the ballot for the next election. That recommendation could possibly come by August.
Gilkey said the measure was put to referendum four times and defeated in each instance. He said the key will be education of voters.
“The biggest problem the average person in town is going to have is they have a preconceived notion right now — based on historic inertia rather than based on true facts,” Gilkey said. “A lot of people are going to look at it from, ‘Well, this is the way we’ve always done it, I don’t see a need to change,’ but they haven’t really explored things to the point that this committee will.”
Jim Kenney, who also sits on the committee, said after they figure out whether to go with town hall meetings or other formats for spreading the word, they can print it in the sewer bill that goes to each resident.
But Gilkey said he’s not sure that’s the most efficient way to spread the information.
“Let me ask a silly question,” Gilkey said. “Has anybody in here ever read anything other than what they owe on their sewer bill? The only thing I’ve ever looked at is the amount and the due date.”
Cary Stemle, the committee’s communication officer, said it will take a lot of coordination to get information to voters, but some of it could be accomplished online.
Kenney also said surveys with specific questions about different issues that come with moving from a town to a city could give the committee a better feel for what constituents think about the idea.
But before it gets to that point, Gilkey said informing voters is a paramount step in the process.
“I’m reticent to ask someone to make a decision on something before they understand the facts and the background,” Gilkey said. “I think you need to be very careful about the input you solicit prior to the information stages.”