GREENFIELD — Interest could be waning in Indiana’s smallest form of government if Hancock County’s list of candidates for township races this spring is any indication.
While a few townships have contested races for the May 6 primary election – including a four-way race in Vernon Township – some have just enough candidates to fill the ballot. Three townships don’t even have enough people willing to serve.
Whether this is a trend in declining interest in local government is unclear, local political officials say. But since parties can still slate candidates this summer to fill ballot vacancies, the November general election could yield more names and contests.
There are two offices at the township level: trustee and the township board, which has three members. Township government manages money for volunteer fire departments and poor relief for those who apply; and cares for small cemeteries on public property.
Janice Silvey, chairwoman of the Hancock County Republican Party, said it can be hard to recruit people to serve.
“I think a lot of the people don’t maybe understand everything they do,” she said.
Besides, she said, a recent state law that does not allow public employees to serve on boards prevented some incumbents from signing up this year.
Matt Decker, for example, has served on the Brown Township board but is also the Wilkinson fire chief. Since the township board passes money on to the towns of Shirley and Wilkinson for fire protection, Decker said he chose not to seek re-election.
“For the amount of money I make, it’s not really worth having to get an attorney to decipher it,” Decker said.
So now, there aren’t enough people signed up for the Brown Township board: only two people have signed up for the three seats.
The law will likely affect Todd Stephenson as well: the Green Township Board incumbent is also on the township volunteer fire department and signed up for re-election, but he will likely have to remove his name from the general election ballot should he get selected this spring.
Other townships that don’t have enough people willing to run are Blue River and Green. Nobody signed up to serve as Green Township trustee; current trustee Sharon Brown says it’s time for her to retire, and she hopes the GOP can slate somebody this summer for the spot.
John Priore is the only person willing so far to serve on the Blue River Township board. Priore, who previously served on the board, says while township government is vital for small and rural communities, people are showing less interest in government in general.
“Each township is a little bit different,” he added. “We on the east side are definitely different. We’re a rural community, most people believe in the old saying, ‘The best government is less government.’ We just don’t have the issues out here that generate enough interest that gets people involved in government.”
Still, Priore – a regular observer at county government meetings – says income and property tax decisions affect rural residents greatly, and he wants to be a voice advocating for Blue River Township.
“I think townships are a critical piece of government. It’s home rule,” he said.
Brandywine, Buck Creek, Jackson and Sugar Creek townships have just enough candidates to fill the ballot this spring: one trustee candidate and three board candidates each. But in Buck Creek, incumbent Trustee Mel Branson will face Democratic challenger Donald Waymire in the fall general election.
Vernon Township holds the most contested races this spring. Four men running for the Republican nomination for trustee, and four are running for three open GOP nomination spots on the township board.
Even after the three Republicans are chosen this spring, there will be at least one race in Vernon Township this fall: Democrat Danielle Patterson has also signed up for Vernon Township board, so candidates will have to campaign all over again to determine who the ultimate winners are.
Center Township also has a contested race. Four Republicans are running for the three board spots.
Fred Dunlevy is the only newcomer, joining incumbents Guy Titus, Rich Bottorff and Steven Leonard in the race for the GOP nomination.
This is the first campaign for Dunlevy, president of the Tea Party of Hancock County. He hopes to become more acquainted with township funding and make sure money is being spent wisely.
“Since that’s taxpayer money, I want to make sure that money is being spent properly and we’re getting our most bang for our buck,” he said.
Just how this spring’s races – or lack of races – in township government impacts the November general election ballot remains to be seen. All parties, including smaller parties like the Libertarians, can slate candidates to spots that were vacant on the primary election ballot.
Since there are plenty of vacancies this spring, that opens up the opportunity for more people to step up and serve.
The deadline for parties to fill vacancies for the general election ballot is June 30. If there still aren’t enough candidates willing to serve in the general election, state law requires county commissioners to pick current elected township officials to stay in office.
Phil Hunt, chairman of the Hancock County Democratic Party, said he is constantly looking for candidates to serve, and township seats are no different. There are only three Democrats to sign up for township races this spring and no Democrats for countywide seats, but Hunt says there will probably be more slated to the ballot this summer.
Silvey said she, too, is looking for Republicans willing to stand up and fill in the holes the GOP had in township government.
“We don’t want to leave a blank one on there,” she said.
WHO'S RUNNING IN TOWNSHIP RACES
Here’s a roster of candidates who are seeking office in the primary election in the townships. Voters will be nominating candidates for trustee and township boards, which consist of three members. All candidates are Republicans unless otherwise indicated.
Blue River Township
Trustee: Daniel Engleking
Board: John Priore
Trustee: Sandra Matthias
Board: Kevin Bates, Trent Henderson,* Craig Moore
Trustee: Katie Lewman*
Board: Mark Grass,* Kyle Hart*
Buck Creek Township
Trustee: Melvin Branson,* Donald Waymire (D)
Board: Gene Springer,* John Forcum, Erin Harsin-Jordan
Trustee: Ron Horning*
Board: Guy Titus,* Rich Bottorff,* Steven Leonard,* Fred Dunlevy
Trustee: No candidates filed
Board: Stephanie Jones,* William T. Jones II, Ronald D. Stamps, Todd Stephenson*
Trustee: Bob McDaniel*
Board: Robert Engleking,* Keith Wilson,* Judy Brown* (D)
Sugar Creek Township
Trustee: Robert Boyer*
Board: Matthew Holland, Ron Sanders,* Douglas A. Dugger
Trustee: Jim Nolte,* Ron Stafford, Scott Cushman, Ernest Oden
Board: Brendan Hartnett, Marybeth Sears, Philip R. Allen, Andrew Smith, Danielle Patterson (D)
Source: Hancock County Election Office