Category Archives: Local Government

Constitution Day–And Other Public Service Announcements

September 17th is Constitution Day.

Bet you didn’t know that, because it hasn’t gotten very much attention. In 2004, Congress passed a law requiring that any school receiving federal funds of any kind provide educational programming on the significance of the signing of the Constitution.

Public school systems also have an obligation to mark the day, but many of them evidently struggle to find appropriate speakers and/or materials.

Fear not! The ACLU to the rescue!

The ACLU of Indiana will send trained volunteers into classrooms in central Indiana. (If you are an educator who wants to have this programming in your classroom this year, you can sign up on the organization’s website.) You can also download all sorts of helpful things–the Constitution, study guides and other materials, a classroom PowerPoint presentation and a wide variety of online resources, including games, curriculum, and videos.

As the website says, nothing is more important to our democracy than improving civic literacy. So spread the word.

Okay–so you aren’t a teacher, and you don’t need help marking Constitution Day.

If you live Indianapolis and feel the need to know more about the city and how it works before November’s municipal elections, have we got a deal for you!

The Center for Civic Literacy, the League of Women Voters, the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, the Urban League, the Indianapolis Bar Foundation, the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center, NUVO, WFYI, and several other civic organizations are working with the Indianapolis Public Library to sponsor three forums to be held at Central Library. They’re free and open to the public. You can learn more–and register to attend one or all of them– here.

Have you always wondered what a municipal corporation is? How the City-County Council works? Who pays taxes and who doesn’t? What our most pressing problems are? Where we see our City in 2020? Come find the answers to these questions and many others! Forums will be held on September 21st, October 6th and October 20th.

The series is called “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know about Indianapolis Government In Order to Cast an Informed Vote.”

No politics, no spin, just basic information that will help you evaluate the priorities and capacities of the candidates for Mayor and Council who are asking for your vote.

See you there!


Life in the City

INIndianapolis will be holding its elections for Mayor and City-County Council in November, and the candidates will be talking about the issues that face our city–and hopefully, how they plan to address those issues.

It will be interesting to see how many of the challenges they identify are the same ones that mayors of other cities cited most frequently at a recent conference on the state of the nation’s cities.

Our annual State of the Cities report examines what is happening now in cities. The top 10 issues discussed by mayors in their 2015 State of the City addresses are essential to operations, development, and livability.

The analysis reveals what issues mayors are focused on by measuring the percentage of speeches significantly covering an issue. We examined 100 State of the City speeches in cities large and small, with a regionally diverse sample from across the country. These are the top issues that matter to cities.

The issues identified were, in ascending order of frequency, healthcare (especially in states that have refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA); demographics (race relations, cultural diversity, sexual orientation, and immigration); environment and energy (a category that includes public transportation); data and technology; housing; education; budgets; public safety; infrastructure; and economic development.

All of these issues face us here in Indianapolis. Unlike cities in states with genuine home rule, however, the ability of our mayor and council–no matter whom we elect–will be severely constrained by the fact that, in Indiana, municipal governments can do very little beyond what the state legislature in its “wisdom,” allows. (You will recall we spent a good two years begging the General Assembly for the right to decide whether to tax ourselves in order to expand mass transit.)

So–as the candidates mount their campaigns, hold “meet-and-greet’ events and fundraisers and otherwise make themselves available to We the People, in addition to asking about their preferred policies, we also need to ask them how they intend to work with our “overlords” at the Indiana General Assembly.

If You Believe That, I Have a Bridge to Sell You…

Whoopie! Indiana has a surplus!

Of course, we also have a state where one out of five children live in poverty, and where evidence of our crumbling infrastructure has become too obvious to ignore.

The northbound lanes of I65 over a Tippecanoe County bridge has been closed for a second time, just days after an initial closure for “unusual movement.” After the most recent closure, Indiana’s Department of Transportation issued a statement to the effect that it is unable to project when it might reopen.

To say that motorists have been inconvenienced would be an enormous understatement. A friend says the trip from Indianapolis to Lafayette that used to take her 70 minutes recently took nearly three hours.

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues periodic reports on infrastructure in the states. Indiana’s 2010 “Report Card” gave the state an overall D+, and our bridges weren’t even the worst: the 1900+ “defective” bridges identified in the report earned us a C+. We scored far worse on drinking water (D+), wastewater (D-) and dams (D-).

This was five years ago, so the sorry and arguably dangerous condition of our infrastructure shouldn’t have come as a surprise to the Administration.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I could run a substantial personal “surplus”if I never changed my furnace filters, fixed my roof, or repaired broken appliances.

You’ll excuse me if I don’t consider Indiana’s “surplus” evidence of prudent government.

Deplorable Hoosier Ethics

Same old, same old.

The headline on a recent editorial from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette pretty well sums it up– State Sinks Further into Ethics Morass. 

The editorial asked the 64-Thousand-Dollar question: “How low will the bar have to slip before Indiana lawmakers finally demand tougher ethics laws?”

Troy Woodruff and Inspector General David Thomas have lowered it another notch. Woodruff, the former chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, won’t face criminal or civil charges related to state land deals benefiting his own family members, thanks to a ruling from Thomas.

The inspector general simply concluded Woodruff’s conduct “gives rise to the appearance of impropriety” and “diminishes public trust.”

And how.

Woodruff’s “appearance of impropriety” (it appeared improper because it was improper) is just the latest in a sorry string of episodes in which Indiana elected and appointed officials have abused the public trust, using their positions to enrich themselves or their families.

A couple of years ago, it was Eric Turner, twisting arms behind the scenes to protect his family’s lucrative nursing home business; more recently, an employee of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles negotiated a cushy contract between the Bureau and a private vendor, and then–what a coincidence!–left the BMV for a high-level job with that vendor. (After the BMV story became front-page news, Governor Pence cancelled the contract and ordered an “ethics investigation” of the transaction. I think this is what is meant by “locking the barn door after the horse is stolen…”)

Rep. Robert Behning, who chairs the House Education Committee, formed an education lobbying company. The House Ethics Committee is “looking into” whether or not he violated the rules.

Even Indiana’s Inspector General– who seems more interested in downplaying and minimizing ethics violations than punishing them– found former Secretary of Education Tony Bennett in violation of the state ethics code.

In Woodruff’s case, as the Journal Gazette reported,

After Woodruff’s legislative defeat, he and his wife both were awarded state jobs. His mother also was hired by INDOT. His wife remains a highway department employee; Troy Woodruff left last week to go into business for himself – taking with him with years of taxpayer-supported job-training and invaluable state connections.

Statehouse observers have long whispered that the violations that get reported are just the tip of the iceberg–that backscratching and conflicts of interest are widely accepted as the way business is done in Indiana government. They note that with the exodus of experienced statehouse reporters and the diminished news coverage of state government, only the most rash and egregious behavior ever gets reported.

I’ll give the last word to the Journal Gazette.

Lawmakers ignore the repeated absolution of ethical lapses at their own risk. Voters can’t continue to overlook conflicts allowing lawmakers’ friends and allies to grow richer even as their own communities suffer from dwindling state support. They eventually will cry foul over the Statehouse’s low ethical threshold.

Can We Make You Care?

Yesterday, I argued that local elections are important, and that the many people who only bother going to the polls in Presidential years should care about the people running state and local government.

As Indianapolis gears up for municipal elections this fall, the Center for Civic Literacy is trying to get that message out.

In a collaborative project with NUVO, WFYI and a number of civic organizations, we plan to identify individuals who are Marion County residents and registered to vote, but who do not vote in off-year elections; people who only go to the polls in national elections. Through interviews, relationship building, and educational events we will try to persuade these voters that they should  care about local issues and that they should vote in the upcoming municipal election.

The slogan of this effort is: Make them care!

The initiative is modeled after a similar effort in California, called “Make Al Care.”

In addition, we are working with those same civic organizations to put together a series of forums to be held in September and October titled, “Electing Our Future: What You Need to Know in Order to Cast an Informed Vote.” The goal is to increase informed engagement in the civic and political life of our city.

The programs will take place from 6-8pm at the Indianapolis Public Library’s Central location on St. Clair St. Current officeholders and candidates for public office will not participate–this is to be a nonpartisan educational effort.

Mon, Sept. 21stHow does Indianapolis Work? The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce will take responsibility for this initial presentation, and will include a brief description of where we are in the federal/state/local scheme of things; a discussion of home rule/state authority; and a description of city structure: Mayor, Council, Departments, Municipal Corporations and what each does. The forum will explain how Unigov makes Indianapolis different from other cities, and will describe how we finance city services.

Tues, Oct. 6thWhat are the issues we face? The Center for Civic Literacy and the League of Women Voters will be lead partners for this forum. How does Indianapolis deal with change? With diversity? What do citizens need to know to make informed decisions on quality of life issues: environmental, public health, education, transportation, arts and culture, civic life? How do we identify and allocate dwindling resources—with resources broadly defined to include civic, corporate and religious organizations and nonprofits, sources of expertise, & civic energy.

Tues, Oct. 20thWhat do we want Indianapolis to look like 5, 10, 15 years from now? If we want a city that is healthy, wealthy & wise, how do we get there? The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee will share insights from its Indy 2020 project.

These efforts to increase civic knowledge and engagement will have no effect unless we can enlist people who already care in the effort to make their children, colleagues, co-workers and others understand why local government matters, and why their votes are vitally important.

How do we make them care?