Many years ago, when I was practicing real estate law, I represented the developers of the Indianapolis Westin. I still remember a meeting with a mortgage broker from New Jersey; he asked me how long it took to pull a building permit, and I responded “About a day.” He looked at me as if I’d sprouted wings. In New Jersey, he informed me, it took about five years. And presumably—although he didn’t say this aloud—several bribes.
Whatever our problems in Indianapolis, we have historically been spared the sort of corruption that plagues other American cities. There have been exceptions, of course, but by and large, we’ve run an honest city government.
That may be changing.
There has been a lot of conversation, via media and especially the local blogs (see here and here), about SB 621, the “imperial Mayor” bill. The criticisms are all accurate enough—the outrage over the process, which entirely bypassed those who will be affected, the irony of Republicans giving increased power to the Mayor’s office given the probability that the increased authority will be exercised in the future by a Democratic Mayor, the gutlessness of the Governor’s signature on a bill that violates every principle he claims to support.
I don’t disagree with those criticisms, but my focus is on one part of the bill that has received far too little scrutiny: the provision giving the Mayor effective control of the Development Commission.
Another story may be instructive. A former member of the City-County Council recently told me about a contentious zoning decision made by the Commission —a denial of a zoning change that would have increased the value of a particular parcel of land by several million dollars. The denial was appealed to the Council, and the developer who owned the land called upon the Councilor. During the visit, he explained that the Council member could expect continued financial and political support—if the Commission’s denial was reversed.
Before SB 621, the Mayor controlled four of the nine seats on the Development Commission. After January, he will control five.
It will be interesting to see who profits from decisions made by the Commission during the remainder of Ballard’s term, and how “connected” they are.
Administration defenders of the indefensible imperial Mayor bill are claiming—presumably with a straight face—that SB 621 is all about “accountability.” That’s rich, given the utter lack of accountability for a number of highly questionable spending decisions made by this mayor. (Perhaps if we had local newspaper reporters….but we don’t.) Case in point: barely a month ago, Ballard made what seemed to be an offhand remark about a cricket field during a trip to India. Last week, construction contracts were awarded. Contractors cannot bid without plans and specifications—they can’t price work in the abstract. Clearly, the cricket plans had been in the works for a long enough period to allow for the necessary documentation to be prepared. The Administration didn’t see fit to include the City-County Council or the public in the planning process—probably anticipating the criticism that is now being leveled at a fail accompli.
Thanks to SB 621, the Mayor will no longer have any accountability to the Council or to voters. Thanks also to the provisions of SB 621 and the general lack of understanding of the power exercised by the Development Commission, the administration will have the remainder of Ballard’s term to enrich “connected” folks.
And if a Democrat wins the Mayor’s office next time, the Indiana legislature can simply change the rules again.