Long-time incumbent challenged in Johnson County commissioner race

The incumbent who has held the District 3 seat on the Johnson County Board of Commissioners since 2012 is being challenged in the Republican primary.

Incumbent Ron West is a retired business owner who has extensive experience in county government. Before becoming commissioner, he previously served three terms on the county council. West is seeking another term to see through large projects that the commissioners are currently overseeing.

Challenger Stephen “Steve” Powell is retired from a career in communications and government relations, but stays active in the community with various organizations and as president of the Greenwood Rotary Club. Powell has ideas to rethink how the county tackles some issues and believes in term limits. If elected, he vows to serve no more than two terms.

The District 3 seat must be held by someone who lives in White River, Pleasant or Clark townships. However, this office represents the whole county and all Johnson County voters who take the Republican ballot are eligible to vote for it.

The District 1 seat is also on the ballot but current District 1 Commissioner Brian Baird was not challenged in the primary. Neither commissioner seat currently has a Democratic challenger, though there’s still a chance a candidate could file for the November election.

To help voters make their decision in the race, the Daily Journal asked the candidates their takes on issues facing the county and its employees ahead of the May 7 primary and early voting.

Here’s a snapshot of what they said, edited for length, repetition and clarity:

Why are you running for this office?


Powell: I serve on a lot of boards. I keep very busy, but I am tired of griping and complaining. And some people say, “Steve, if you’ve got a complaint why don’t you do something about it?” So that’s why I’m saying, “OK, I’m going to do my best.” One of my pledges is: that whatever salary there is, half of that salary will be given to nonprofits. I’m not asking everybody else to do that. I’m blessed to be able to do that. The other half I will use strictly to participate in local government entities like the Association of County Commissioners going to conventions, and advocating for the interests of the citizens here in Johnson County.

West: I’m thinking of another term, primarily because there are three projects that I’ve been involved with for a number of years. I would like to be a part of seeing those things brought to fruition.

The one thing that I have espoused all along as a county commissioner, is I’m helping somebody every day, or I’m trying to. [On March 20] I met with a gentleman who had a drainage issue. Unfortunately, there’s nothing the county could do on his property because it’s private property. But as commissioners, we’re working with somebody almost every day and that’s the beautiful part about the job.

Commissioners are the executive branch of the county. What experience do you have that fits this role?

Powell: I’ve got 45 years as a resident of Johnson County. I’ve also served as an associate member with the Association of Indiana Counties and Indiana Association of County Commissioners, and I served as a government relations representative at AT&T for 41 years. … I’ve been on the Board of Zoning Appeals for five or six years. … I’ve been very involved in local government not only here in Johnson County as participating and voting and giving my opinion — sometimes when it’s wanted, sometimes when it’s not — but also and the 91 other counties throughout the state. … I’ve seen the good and the bad and I can bring that expertise.

West: What I bring to the position of course is years and years and years of self-employment and business acumen. I know business. I know how to work with people. I know how to get things done. The other thing too is my years on the county council.

Here’s the way the three of us work. The other two commissioners are in the construction business, and so they handle the bricks and mortar and I work with the numbers. So, I handle a lot of things like employee health insurance, budgeting and things of that nature. With my years of experience of being an elected official, I know how to work with other government entities, other elected officials and department heads.

What would be your top priorities if you’re elected?

Powell: We have a great county in many areas, but we still need improvement. I’ve got four priorities. We need to continue to emphasize public safety. We’ve got a great sheriff’s department, great municipal police departments and fire departments. Where we lag is infrastructure.

We have infrastructure, but we have not expanded upon it and we have not kept up with the needs of the community. I think in terms of streets, roads and highways, but I would go even beyond that in terms of sanitary sewers. I’m for high-quality, thoughtful, smart investment. … Look at Morgantown Road, which should have been improved many years ago. We did put a roundabout in at Fairview Road, but it should have been widened. Stones Crossing Road is a mess. It should have been widened to four lanes, and now they’re thinking about putting in a new housing addition. I’m for investment, but let’s do this in a smart, thoughtful way.

The third thing we need to improve upon is intergovernmental cooperation. … I’m talking about the city of Greenwood and Franklin and other units of government, including schools, townships and libraries, cooperating and working together. We need this because what happens in one unit of government affects the other.

The fourth is quality of life. It is what keeps this county great; what attracts businesses and residents. We need to maintain that. I don’t believe we have done what we should do in terms of maintaining and growing the quality of life. … We need to have more parks and more trails. What I would love to see and I’d be glad to serve on a study group to extend the linear walking path in Waverly up through Johnson County along the White River and go into Marion County. Hamilton County and Marion County are also working on walking paths on the White River, wouldn’t it be neat that you could start from Martinsville and go all the way up to Noblesville along White River?

West: One of course is Interstate 69. I’ve been actively involved in I-69. I attended my first meeting on I-69 in 1995 at Martinsville High School if you can believe that. We’re to the point now in a county where we have to really concentrate on how we’re going to accommodate that new interstate. We need frontage roads and improvements to some of our interior roads in conjunction with it. On the (redevelopment commission), we’re looking at commercial and residential development along that corridor.

Another thing is mental health. In June, we started construction of our mental health facility. I’m really excited about that. The idea of the mental health facility is in conjunction with avoiding incarceration. … So, with the advent of the mental health center now, instead of locking these people up, we’ll be able to get them into a facility that can get them stabilized and get them into a treatment program and then have follow-up.

The third thing is community corrections. … The thing that I’ve been working on for many years and I did some study on is what they call therapeutic communities. This concept has solid results institutions that have used the concept had about a 60% success rate in bringing people back to a normal lifestyle. And so with our new facility, I’ve been working aggressively with the people involved — with not so much the bricks and mortar — but with the programming and how we’re going to run this new facility.

With continued growth in once-rural areas and aging streets in subdivisions, county road funding is spread thin. What should the county do to catch up on road work?

Powell: We’ve got to look for other dollars and make it a No. 1 priority. We need to go to the state and federal government and we need to apply for grants. … The second thing we should do is look at roads with a holistic approach. … We also need to do a better job of inter-governmental cooperation for the roads and streets. Because if you improve a road in northern Johnson County, if you widen four lanes in the city and you don’t extend it into the county, what good is that? So we need to cooperate in terms of infrastructure deployment so when one entity is improving infrastructure, the other entity is too.


West: More funding; that’s just the bottom line. It all comes down to the funding. I proposed years ago, when the council was considering the wheel tax, that we talk to some state legislators about Johnson County having a gas tax instead of a wheel tax. The idea behind that is those truck stops are pumping millions of gallons of fuel every month … you would capture all this in transitory traffic and the tax they pay would go toward our roads. When you think about all of this traffic coming through the county oh my word that generates an awful lot of the gas tax and not to mention all the internal service stations. I put that forth for a long time (but to pass it would require action by the legislature). It would give us quite a bit of additional road funding for that we’re not going to be able to get through the state.

The highway department does a good job of getting whatever they can get from state and federal funds. … We have over 600 miles of road and maintain a lot of rural roads with poor drainage. We’ve got these smaller, rural roads that were never built to handle the traffic loads, especially the heavy traffic loads that we’re witnessing, and then when you take into account the warehousing that’s gone on in Greenwood, Whiteland and Franklin. It’s a challenge.

With I-69 complete through Johnson County, what — if anything — can officials do to prepare the area for growth?

Powell: Once an area is built up, it’s very difficult to go back and change things, so we need to be very careful. That corridor has tremendous potential and opportunities. It’s the gateway to the city of Indianapolis coming through Johnson County. So what I would like to see is high-quality growth and we shouldn’t have a hodgepodge of groups doing it. We need to make sure the infrastructure, like Morgantown and Smith Valley roads and County Road 144 are widened. How are we going to do that? We need to give some serious thought. The other thing is, there are no sanitary sewers out there. How are you going to develop that without sanitary sewers?

West: We’re working with HWC Engineering on how we’re going to plan for the areas along the interstate and how we will be able to best utilize those areas for development, both commercial and residential. One of the things that we’re doing in conjunction with I-69 is extending Bluff Road south at Smith Valley Road, primarily to cut through the western edge of the Wakefield addition. I’ve just been adamant about what we’ve got to do to keep that frontage road connected. … We tried to get the state to do this back when they were designing I-69 … but it didn’t meet their plans. In the RDC, we’re actively engaged in trying to figure out exactly what’s the best use of that land. We’re trying to figure out where it is best to place each of the frontage roads going south. From Smith Valley down to Stones Crossing was my thought. It would run fairly close in proximity to I-69. There was talk about widening that area to allow more space for development, especially commercial development. So we’re still in the process of doing all of that. We’ve been approached by some developers already for some of those areas.

There’s an ongoing debate over increasing employee pay and hiring an HR employee. What do you think about these issues?

Powell: Employees are No. 1, the quality of your employees will reflect in the type of services they deliver. Now, we have to have money for raises, we all know that. I’m a strong believer in merit in terms of evaluating employees. That’s where human resources evaluating employees comes in.

I believe in having a person in place who is working with not only those who are directly responsible to the county commissioners but also others who are responsible for human resources. That could be a specific human resources person or a county manager. … You need somebody who is the feet on the ground, who is carrying out policy, carrying out the strategic plan and doing all those things. So, I’m a strong advocate of hiring a county manager. Morgan County and many of the other counties have hired county managers as well.

West: Elected officials have a certain degree of autonomy so they’re going to make decisions and best fit their offices or their departments. … But the council sits in final judgment and approves adjusted budgets. … They hired Waggoner Irwin Scheele to establish all the job classifications; they did external internal wage comparisons from around the state. They presented the council with those wage comparisons and the council decided on the compensation level. So again, it’s back to a grid-type system (where performance isn’t recognized). For example, you’ve been doing your job for 15 years; you’re very knowledgeable. Then here comes somebody new and they’re making the same money; it’s demoralizing. …

There’s been talk for a good while of hiring an HR person and I’ve been opposed to it. As an elected official, you’re gonna make those decisions. An HR person could help with paperwork and exit interviews. But we’re currently covering that with the people that we have. I’ve never felt like an HR person would be able to bring anything to the job we’re not currently getting other than taking some work off of the people who are currently doing that.


Johnson County Commissioner District 3

Term: Four years

Duties: The Board of Commissioners are the executive body of the county and are responsible for county buildings, lands and property; audits and authorizes claims against the county; receives bids and authorizes contracts; supervising many county departments; oversee construction and maintenance of roads and bridges as well as exercise many of the legislative powers and duties of the county.

Salary: $41,580 (2024)


Name: Stephen “Steve” Powell

Age: 78

Residence: Greenwood

Family: Wife Pamela; three children

Occupation: Retired, 41 years as AT&T government relations director

Education: Southport High School; bachelor’s and master’s from Ball State; associate’s from University of Indianapolis

Political experience: First-time candidate

Memberships: Greenwood Rotary Club president; board member for Columbia Club Foundation, Concord Neighborhood Center, United Way of Johnson County, Greenwood Village South, Johnson County Board of Zoning Appeals, Gateway Services and League of Miracles; member of Greater Franklin, Martinsville, Mooresville and Aspire Johnson County chambers of commerce; member of Columbia Club, Antelope Club and Southland Community Church


Name: Ron West

Age: 81

Residence: Greenwood

Family: Wife, Gina; four children

Occupation: Retired business owner

Education: Manuel High School, Indianapolis; some college

Political experience: District 3 Commissioner since 2012; three terms on Johnson County Council

Memberships: Serves on Johnson County Redevelopment Commission and Plan Commission; member of Masons, U.S. Chess Federation, NRA, USA Pickleball, Indiana Farm Bureau, Our Lady of the Greenwood Church