Harder than It Looks

This morning, an acquaintance told me he’d recently been on the downtown Canal, and immediately thought of this post, in which I had bemoaned the city’s neglect of this important urban amenity. He was appalled–as we all should be.

That brief conversation made me ponder the current state of affairs in Indianapolis, and the importance–and difficulty–of civic leadership.

When Greg Ballard ran for Mayor, he talked a lot about leadership. Why, he’d written a (self-published) book about it! If elected, he would reduce crime, put more police on the streets, and reduce the budget. How hard could it be?

Reality is so messy and disappointing. It turns out that managing a city is significantly more complicated than giving orders to subordinates in a military unit. Not only do you have to deal with people elected to the City-County Council, who don’t think their job is to carry out your orders, you have to understand the inter-relationships of municipal issues and departments, and budget for a variety of services that are required by law or political necessity and constrained by reduced revenues. When Ballard ran, he displayed the sort of hubris that motivates citizens to write letters to the editor expressing amazement that elected officials can’t seem to grasp how simple the answer to climate change, gas prices, public safety, or the national debt really is. Americans tend to be ambivalent about credentials: we want our doctor or lawyer or CPA to be well-trained, but we think any well-meaning citizen has what it takes to run a city.

So three-and-a-half years later, we have a higher crime rate, fewer police on the streets, and no reduction in municipal expenditures. We are fixing streets and sidewalks with dollars “borrowed” from future utilities ratepayers, and we’ve sold off our parking meters for fifty years, presumably because the city is incapable of managing that infrastructure. Important civic assets like the Canal are falling into disrepair, and Indianapolis’ once-sterling reputation as a City that Works has become a punch line.

I think Ballard is beginning to realize that running a city is harder than it looks.


  1. Shiela- I follow your postings with rapt attention; you are a good writer and your insights are most often far more illuminating than mine. I’m pretty pessimistic, too!- but I think you’ve gotten too down on Indy. I’ve lived here for 16 years now, and there are many parts of this city purging decades of decay and rebuilding; and for outdoor enthusiasts like me, the walkable/rideable urban landscape has never been better. Paying attention to the Meridian Street corridor, or the 38th street corridor (admittedly confined to the DT portion), I’ve seen more renovations and even new construction, than I ever would have guessed I would see. Can Ballard claim credit for all this – no. Also I spare no love for privititization, it was a horrible idea that shows it’s flaws more with each passing year. But I can’t agree that Indy’s reputation has suffered. I’d argue it’s never been better. Other than reports on certain buffoons sitting on the Statehouse, of course.

  2. I hope you are correct, and that I’m being too pessimistic. But the improvements we see being made are almost all being financed with ‘smoke and mirrors’ dollars, generated by ‘deals’ that I’m afraid will come back to bite us.

  3. You do realize don’t you Robb that paying for road paving through a 30 year loan (which is essentially what the utilities sail is all about) is not a good idea? What’s going to happen 7 years from now and those roads have to be paved again? We will be tapped out financially.

    I do disagree with Sheila on one point. The problem is not that Ballard was unable to live up to his campaign promises. The problem was Ballard never tried. From the night of the election, he was taken over by profiteers in the Republican Party who were more interested in themselves than the long-term future of the GOP or Ballard’s re-election. Ballard’s goose is cooked and it’s all because he didn’t take control of his own adminstration from Day 1.

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