Category Archives: Local Government

My Students Continue to Teach Me…

I’ve posted previously about teaching an undergraduate class in Media and Public Policy. I have also posted–frequently–about the loss of real journalism in our current media environment.

Abbreviated version: we are positively marinating in information, but losing the “journalism of verification” required by a democratic society.

When we came to the point in the semester when students share their research with the class, one presentation compared our local newspaper’s coverage of the just-concluded municipal election with that same paper’s coverage of the municipal elections held in 1991. In both years, the only offices on the ballot were the local ones; In Indiana, we elect Mayors and Councilors in “off” years, when neither statewide nor federal candidates are on the ballot. Also in both years, there was no incumbent running.

The numbers are telling.

In 1991, the  Indianapolis Star ran 63 articles focused upon general election coverage. This year, it ran 11. In 1991, there were 36 articles devoted to the issues involved in the mayoral and council races; this year, there were 16. In 1991, there were 26 articles explaining the electoral process; this year, 11. Stories devoted solely to the City-County Council races declined from 14 to 5.

Even coverage of election results declined; in 1991, there were 15 articles, this year, 6.

The one category in which there was an increase in coverage? Elections unrelated to Indiana. That category went from 56 stories in 1991 to 101 this year.

The editorial staff layoffs that have characterized newspaper operations in the intervening years have clearly played a part in the decline of local coverage: there were 32 different reporters with bylines covering the 1991 election; this year, there were 14.

Local newspapers aren’t just neglecting to cover City Hall. They aren’t even reporting on the (far easier and accessible) “horse race.”

Which leaves us with some questions: where are citizens supposed to get the credible, verified information we need? How are we supposed to keep local government accountable?

Trash Talking

Back when Indianapolis built its waste incinerator to generate energy, the move was applauded as state of the art, and it was. The “deal” made at that time required the City to provide enough trash to allow the vendor, Covanta, to produce steam used to heat downtown buildings.

But time marches on. As cities across the country have encouraged recycling, Indianapolis has persistently lagged the nation in the percentage of people doing so. (We are one of the few places that charges folks for the “privilege” of recycling, which might have something to do with our lackluster performance.)

Ostensibly to address that low level of participation, the Ballard Administration entered into an agreement with Covanta to build a new recycling facility. But as Carrie Hamilton of the Indiana Recycling Coalition has written:

This facility would move the city’s residential collection to a one-bin system that would mix waste and recyclables in the same bin. Covanta, which already has a contract to burn the city’s waste for energy production, has been contracted to separate recyclables from waste at the proposed MWP facility. In exchange, it gets a minimum $100 million contract putting it in charge of both waste and recycling for all of Indianapolis until 2028…..

There are a number of concerns about this plan, but at the top of the list is this: Covanta secured this contract – and the rights to the city’s recycling future – without having to go through a competitive bidding process.

The contract calls for use of a process known as “Dirty Recycling” –it allows residents to throw all their trash into one receptacle; actual separation is to occur at the Covanta facility. This is a process that is simply not suitable for use in many industries that purchase recyclable materials.

Among the many concerns raised by this contract are its length–it locks Covanta in until 2028– several “put or pay” provisions that actually penalize the city if residents recycle more than the contract anticipates, and the contamination of otherwise recyclable materials in a highly questionable methodology. But the major issue is, once again, the utter disregard of the process by which such agreements should be executed.

There are all sorts of arguments–legitimate and less so– to be made about the impact of recycling (see John Tierney’s Op Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times), but there is no legitimate argument for ignoring the legal processes intended to protect taxpayers against crony capitalism and/or intemperate decision-making.

If the contract with Covanta is good for the City, it would have survived the vetting that the law requires.

If the Ballard Administration were truly interested in protecting the interests of citizens and taxpayers, and genuinely interested in an environmentally-appropriate recycling program, there would be no need to bypass the public bid processes mandated by law.

Garbage isn’t the only thing that smells here.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish–Millionth Edition

These days, partisan divisions are so acute that we sometimes forget the stark differences that can also characterize members of the same political party. For example, I worked in the Hudnut Administration, and I often noted the dramatic differences between Republican Bill Hudnut’s approach to governance and that of his equally Republican successor, Steve Goldsmith.

I used to say that if a survey were to disclose that most citizens didn’t see any use for city planners, Hudnut would go out into the community and explain why planning was important; Goldsmith would say “Oh good. Let’s fire the planners.”

Goldsmith’s approach certainly allowed him to brag about “streamlining” local government. One of his many “reforms” was to get rid of the city’s lab, which–among other things– tested samples of the concrete and asphalt intended to be used by city contractors, to ensure it met specifications.

Evidently, we no longer have a state lab either...

The state’s infrastructure received a D+ rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Most recently, I-65 and State Road 156 have served as examples of Indiana’s crumbling roads and bridges, but Indiana’s infrastructure problems go far beyond those failures–we have over 1,900 structurally deficient bridges,  and a new report reveals the Indiana Department of Transportation approved asphalt ingredients that will significantly shorten the useful life of the roads on which they’re used.

The likely cost to Hoosier taxpayers is in the millions of dollars.

“In a cycle that should have two pavings, you have three pavings. That’s a lot of extra,” said Jason Heile, president of the Indiana Association of County Engineers and Supervisors.

INDOT is now testing the materials used, in order to determine whether they met the contract specifications–but this testing is after the fact. Had the testing occurred prior to the use of the asphalt in repaving, these huge costs could have been avoided.

We saved pennies by failing to test materials in advance. We’ll spend lots of pounds as a result.

It would really be nice to have elected officials who were more interested in actually governing than in grandstanding about how much money they are “saving” us.


Think “It Can’t Happen Here”? It Does.

According to recent media reports, a former Kansas state employee has filed a federal wrongful termination lawsuit, alleging that the employee’s dismissal was founded on her refusal to attend bible and prayer services in Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office.

The defendants have admitted that regular evangelical church services were held in Secretary of State Kobach’s office–led by a “voluntary minister” with something called the “Capitol Commission,” a ministry focused solely on evangelizing Kansas’ government leaders.

I guess they missed that whole “no religious test for public office” part of the U.S. Constitution.

Coming on the heels of Kentucky’s Kim Davis (“I won’t do my job unless I can impose my religious views on others”) controversy, the news from Kansas has prompted a number of Hoosiers to shake their heads and make sympathetic noises–tsk-tsking not just about Kentucky and Kansas but also about presumed behaviors in other “backward” Bible Belt states.

As if it weren’t happening right here in Indiana.

I have former students working in the Pence Administration, and their stories are consistent and every bit as disturbing as those coming out of Kansas. These students report (nervously, after extracting sworn promises not to identify them or their agencies) receiving persistent email “invitations” to attend prayer meetings in the Governor’s office, being required to hire otherwise unqualified personnel who “go to the right church,” being criticized for the absence of bibles on their desks…and dealing with superiors who have no experience with or interest in governance and even less tolerance for public servants unwilling to approach their positions as “ministries.”

Several of those former students have left government, and they aren’t alone. (Although our crack media has failed to note or report on the matter, I’m told the turnover of agency executives during the Pence Administration has far exceeded the usual rate.)

If we still had reporters, an investigation of this Administration’s preoccupation with religion and its imposition of constitutionally forbidden religious tests would make interesting reading.