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Clerk change shows value of competitive elections

3/25/2016 8:02:46 AM

If you doubt the ability of our democratic process to deliver sound government, look to the Fort Wayne city clerk’s office for reassurance. From a controversy roiling its operations just five months ago, new leadership tapped by voters in November appears to have the office back on track and likely in better standing than ever.

City Clerk Lana Keesling, a Republican, took office Jan. 1 after defeating Democrat Angie Davis, a long-time deputy in the office. City Clerk Sandy Kennedy wasn’t seeking re-election, but she resigned in October after a former employee’s secret recording showed Davis and Kennedy involved in alleged election activities in the clerk’s office.

Voters were fortunate to have a qualified candidate ready and willing to take on the task. The clerk’s position is apolitical one, but efficient administration of the office demands skills and qualities not everyone possesses. Keesling’s first-time bid for public office came at a perfect time, when the former business owner and finance manager was looking for a public service opportunity that matched her skills. 

“I’ve got a new set of eyes,” Keesling told The Journal Gazette’s editorial board last fall. “I’ve got new ideas. You get complacent.”

Complacency turned out to be the least of the challenges in the clerk’s office, but an outsider’s view was invaluable. Keesling could cast a critical eye at operations overseen by Kennedy for 32 years. She could ask, for example, about software used by City Council and by parking enforcement. She could ask about seemingly excessive budgets for stamps or why there was no money budgeted for cellphones.

The GOP-controlled City Council, observing the turmoil last fall, withheld half of the clerk’s office budget when it approved 2016 funding, but voted this week to restore $453,116 to cover operations through the end of the year. Keesling’s work in the first months of this year, along with the contributions interim clerk Michelle Chambers made after Kennedy resigned, should give taxpayers confidence that the office is back on track.

Keesling told council this week that nearly $1 million in outstanding citations is on the office books. 

“This has to be cleaned up, and we have to do a better job of keeping current and getting this amount of money collected,” she said.

Would council – and the public – know that if not for the change in administration? Maybe, but maybe not.

It’s easy to grow discouraged about government when officials forget their first obligation is to serve the public, but regular elections hold an important role in casting light on those public servants.

When the political process allows for fair and competitive elections, voters inevitably see a complement of well-qualified candidates. That scenario worked in textbook fashion last year, and it’s worth remembering in another election year.

JGEDITORIALS

March 24, 2016 1:00 AM

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