In my classes on Law and Public Affairs, one of the things I try to explain to my students is the importance of process. The way in which you achieve a goal is often just as important–sometimes even more important–than the goal itself.
This is, of course, a central principle of civil liberties. The effort to protect the public safety is a good example; important as that effort is, we cannot achieve it by imposing a police state, or engaging in random searches for which no probable cause exists. Eradicating racism and discrimination are important goals, but government cannot censor hateful speech as part of that effort.
The principle goes well beyond civil liberties. Economic development efforts focused on bringing new businesses into an area need to avoid recruitment incentives that privilege new enterprises at the expense of those already operating. Initiatives to redevelop blighted areas need to treat property owners and bidders on proposed projects fairly. When the public believes that government officials have favored their friends, or disregarded the rights of others, the trust essential to governance is eroded and other goals are endangered.
We have a perfect example of that scenario right now in Indianapolis.
The development of the Massachusetts Avenue corridor is one of the city’s success stories. When my husband and I were in City Hall, Mass Avenue was home to broken-down and boarded-up buildings interrupted by gaping holes where buildings no longer stood. Today, it’s the center of a vibrant arts scene, with restaurants, theaters, galleries and businesses. There are still a few gaps to be filled in, however; one of those is the block currently occupied by a fire headquarters building and Barton Towers, a senior citizen apartment complex constructed back when any structure on the Avenue was seen as an improvement. Today, those buildings are a jarring interruption of the pedestrian flow on the Avenue.
The Ballard Administration has proposed redeveloping that block, continuing the street-level activity and providing other needed amenities like parking. It’s an important and necessary initiative. But it is threatened by concerns about the way the administration has conducted business in the past.
I’ve posted before about the parking meter deal that benefited a well-connected vendor to the detriment of the city. Paul Ogden and others have blogged about the serious questions raised by the parking garage in Broad Ripple, being developed by a crony of the Mayor with public tax dollars and apparently little or no investment or risk of his own. CityWay is a great project, but most knowledgable observers charged that the financing was an unnecessary giveaway.
The Massachusetts Avenue project is supposed to be financed by the extension of an existing TIF–a tax increment financing district. Democrats on the Council are threatening to derail it until and unless the administration becomes more forthright and transparent about its use and abuse of those districts. Several councilors have charged that TIF repayments that should have gone back into the City’s General Fund have instead been diverted into a Mayoral “slush fund,” an account subject to less oversight, and with fewer controls on its use.
The Council’s concerns are valid. At the very least, the Ballard Administration has been less than transparent. But now, its chickens have come home to roost on Mass Avenue, and the failure of that project would be a setback for downtown and the whole city.
The Administration’s lack of appreciation for the importance of transparency and process has generated resistance from the Council. But while understandable, the Council’s willingness to block an important project in order to make its point would be a similar failure. The questions need to be answered, but not at the expense of city progress.
In this age of toxic partisanship, I suppose it is unrealistic to ask both sides to grow up and have a conversation in which the interests of the city come first.
“He started it!” may be true, but it isn’t the best place to start that discussion.