Category Archives: Local Government

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.


Kim Davis, Mike Pence and Those Pesky Things Called Job Descriptions…

There really isn’t much more to be said about Kim Davis, the County Clerk who claims her religious beliefs should protect her against demands that she do her job. Let’s face it: when even a Fox News panel concludes that her lawyer is an idiot and her argument without legal merit,  her Christian martyr days are probably limited.

As multiple observers have pointed out, if Davis can refuse to do her job because of her religious beliefs, Quaker clerks can refuse to issue gun permits, Amish clerks can deny driver’s licenses…the list goes on. Davis’ defenders seem unable to distinguish between her right to personal religious liberty and a right to use government to deny such liberty to others.

But Davis isn’t the only religious zealot who doesn’t seem to grasp that pesky “job description” concept. Indiana Governor Mike Pence just announced his opposition to the Iran agreement.

Like Davis, Pence is entitled to his views. The problem is that–also like Davis– he doesn’t seem to understand what he’s being paid (with our tax dollars) to do.

Not only does the Governor’s job not include foreign policy, it does include multiple responsibilities which the Pence Administration has consistently ignored: maintenance and repair of the state’s infrastructure, protection of the environment and public health, and day-to-day administration of the state’s bureaucracy (which has experienced unprecedented managerial turnover), to name just a few.

It also includes attention to Indiana’s worsening economy–14.6 percent of Hoosiers now live in food insecure households, up from 14.1 percent in 2013.

Instead of attending to these admittedly prosaic elements of his job description, Pence has spent his time bullying the Superintendent of Public Instruction, establishing a “News Bureau,” hectoring Planned Parenthood, and defending RFRA.

Here’s the “take away” for both of these exemplars of zealotry: if you can’t–or won’t– do your job, you need to quit.



Public Assets, Private Profits, Politics

And the beat goes on.

Over the past several years, Indiana government has entered into a variety of deals in which public assets have generated or guaranteed private profits. The toll road lease probably received the most attention. Daniels’ ill-fated privatization of the welfare application process–and the ensuing lawsuits– was high profile for a time, but his Administration’s thirty-year agreement with Leucadia National Corporation to purchase the output from its Rockport coal gasification plant (coincidentally managed by a long-time political ally) received significantly less coverage.

Locally, of course, we’ve seen a number of dubious transactions, notably the 50-year parking meter contract.

More recently, a politically-connected developer has been given long-term control of the Indiana Dunes. 

The parkland surrounding Indiana’s towering dunes was intended to keep industry away from a geological marvel molded over thousands of years at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.

Yet five years after a politically connected developer suggested officials should hire a company to rehabilitate a dilapidated beachfront pavilion at the popular tourist destination, a small construction project has ballooned into a decades-long privatization deal with the state. It includes two beachfront restaurants, a rooftop bar, a glass-walled banquet hall promising “the best view in Indiana” — and there is potential for more development to come.

What’s more, the company ultimately picked to do the job was co-founded by Chuck Williams, the developer who pitched the initial idea. Williams, a regional chairman of the state Republican Party, worked behind the scenes for over a year with the administrations of two GOP governors, shaping and expanding the plans.

There are times when so-called “public-private partnerships” make sense. There are times they don’t. The problem is, these deals increasingly occur without the public vetting required to make that determination.

In the case of the Indiana Dunes, critics characterize the deal as a “usurping” of public land in the name of private development, and charge that the state Department of Natural Resources did not hold public meetings or seek out more competitive bids. Worse still,

Preliminary figures submitted to the DNR by Williams suggest the project will yield a handsome profit. In its first year, the development is expected to turn a $141,000 profit — a figure projected to climb to nearly $500,000 in a decade.

In return, the DNR will get 2 percent of the company’s annual revenues and $18,000 a year in rent for property that state parks Director Dan Bortner describes as having a “million dollar smile.”

The merits or flaws of this particular contract aside, Hoosier citizens need to demand a halt to the steady sell-off of public goods at both the state and local level until a full public debate can be held to consider the rules–and the ethical guidelines– that should govern privatization agreements.

In far too many cases, the risks are socialized and profits privatized–with We the People guaranteeing the revenues of politically-connected cronies.

And we wonder why citizens are cynical….