Woe is Mayor

These are rough days to be a mayor. If you don’t believe me, look at just two of the issues bedeviling Mayor Ballard right now: police and parking.

In both cases, the Mayor has correctly identified a problem. But in both cases, there are substantial questions about his chosen solutions.

Managing the police is a perennial problem for mayors. Controlling crime and keeping citizens safe is an essential foundation for all the other things a mayor must do. It is no exaggeration to suggest that economic development, service delivery and a city’s quality of life all depend upon the safety of its citizens.

Given the importance of public safety, it’s understandable that Ballard wanted to control IMPD. When he assumed office and wrested control from Sheriff Frank Anderson, he made clear his belief that the Mayor should be the one held accountable for the department’s performance.

Those of us who disagreed pointed out that, in Indiana, the Sheriff is a constitutional office. Unlike the Director of Public Safety, he is elected by and answerable to the voters. Unlike mayors, who have multiple responsibilities, a Sheriffs’ duties and focus all involve law enforcement. If the Sheriff has responsibility for police behavior and public safety, and scandals erupt, voters can express their disapproval quite clearly at the ballot box. If the Mayor controls IMPD, voters must balance approval or disapproval of his public safety performance against their approval or disapproval of other initiatives, sending an inevitably mixed signal.      

The Mayor’s current policing woes stem from that decision to seize control early in his term. Both that decision and his current proposal to privatize parking enforcement will hamstring future mayors as well.

Once again, the Mayor has identified a legitimate issue. Our parking meters are old and outdated; our parking fees have not been raised in many years. It is time to take a holistic look at all aspects of downtown parking—revenue to the city, the effect on downtown businesses, the placement of meters and so on. None of the solutions identified for existing problems, however, requires the City to give a private company control of our parking decisions—and a significant portion of our parking revenues—for fifty years.

As several people have pointed out, had a contract of this sort been in effect a few years ago, the City would not have been able to give permission to build the Cultural Trail. 

The Mayor’s office defends the proposed privatization by pointing to the large capital outlay needed for new equipment, but the City could easily issue a twenty-year revenue bond for that purpose, and keep both control and all revenues in excess of those needed for bond repayment.

One of the most significant leadership challenges mayors face is deciding when to keep control of a public service and when to vest that control elsewhere. These are structural decisions, and they are especially consequential because they tie the hands of future administrations.

They are ultimately the decisions that determine a Mayor’s legacy.