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Published: Wednesday, 3/30/2005

Swancreek Township: Speakers at public hearing to discuss home-rule setup

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

DELTA - As part of its research into establishing a home-rule form of government, Swancreek Township officials are scheduling a public hearing, featuring guest speakers from townships with experience in home rule.

A home rule committee, set up last summer by trustees, has met to discuss the issue, but at this point, additional information is needed from townships that have experienced the shift to the different form of government, said Trustee Randal Ruge.

Limited home-rule government is an option for townships that have populations of more than 5,000.Home rule provides for additional responsibilities on the part of the township and additional rights for voters. Under home rule, for instance, electors could place referendum issues on the ballot. The township currently operates strictly under state law.

Trustees recently approved a $1,000 budget to cover expenses for speakers for the public hearing. Speakers will include, if possible, representatives from townships that have opted out of home rule, Mr. Ruge said.

Residents can express their views during the forum. "We would like to make sure we have as good of a turnout as possible so we can gauge the public response," Mr. Ruge said. The event might be held in a larger building than the township hall to make sure everyone has a seat, he said.

When the home rule committee was formed, some residents immediately questioned costs associated with a new form of government, such as costs for law enforcement. Under home rule, the township would need to have its own police department or would have to contract for police protection.

The committee has since learned that there would be no additional cost to maintain the level of protection from the Fulton County Sheriff's Office, Mr. Ruge said. According to the trustee, Sheriff Darrell Merillat told him that if there is no change in the level of coverage, "no additional cost would be passed along to us." The sheriff did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Still under review is the cost for legal services under home rule - a law director would be appointed - but Mr. Ruge said the township incurs considerable legal expenses to enforce the zoning code. Whenever possible, trustees turn to the county prosecutor's office, but when a case demands a lot of attention, private counsel is hired, he said.

Swancreek spends more than $20,000 a year for private counsel, he said. "I wouldn't anticipate that that amount would go down by having our own counsel, but I do not know how much it might increase," Mr. Ruge said. Legal fees likely would be relative to the amount of legislation enacted that would need to be enforced, he said.

For example, trustees cannot enact legislation now to regulate sand mining operations, but under home rule trustees could impose regulations, such as relating to traffic, noise, and hours of operation, he explained. Under home rule, that could make it "a little more tolerable situation for the residents" who live near sand pits, he said.

Officials in townships that have adopted home rule have said that "the nice thing under home rule is that a township can enact legislation and when you do, you have an ironclad case for enforcement and you also have a dedicated counsel to enforce it," he said.

Swancreek Trustee James Meyer said that ultimately, voters will decide whether to adopt home rule, but he noted that home rule isn't a new idea. "We looked at it in the past and decided we were against it," Mr. Meyer said. "I do not see any advantages to township residents."

However, he said that perhaps there are some benefits that have been overlooked, and that's why he's willing to look at it again.



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