Remember The City Committee?

Back when I was a member of Indianapolis’ city administration, local government was supplemented and assisted by a couple of semi-official organizations composed of local power brokers.

The Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee (GIPC), formed by Mayor John Barton in 1964, was billed as an advisory group of leaders from the public and private sectors . It was charged with formulating a “program of progress that makes use of the city’s full potential.” Frank McKinney, a local bank president, was its first chairman. GIPC still exists, but wouldn’t be recognizable to its founders–its membership today is far broader and more representative (and arguably much less influential).

Another group, dubbed the City Committee, was formed–if my aging memory serves–under the aegis of the Lilly Endowment. The City Committee was a relatively informal collection of government “movers and shakers.” It was bipartisan and (unusual for that time) racially integrated, and included Indianapolis members of the state legislature and city government officials. It served as an important–albeit unofficial– venue for decisions involving the city.

The City Committee included Black men, but excluded women. I still recall the dismissive remark by the Lilly executive who served as the Committee’s convener (conveyed to me by my husband, who–as the then-Director of Metropolitan Development– was a member); when someone suggested including me–the city’s first female Corporation Counsel– and another female lawyer, he vetoed it, saying “Admitting women would destroy collegiality.”

Whatever its faults and drawbacks, the City Committee played an important role in the growth and governance of Indianapolis–vastly improving the administration’s ability to get things done– and I have often thought that the current absence of anything remotely resembling it has made progress more difficult.

A recent column by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times cited research supporting that concern. When we look at trends that are hurting cities, Edsall says we don’t talk enough about the “erosion of the local establishment and the loss of civic and corporate elites.”

Until the late 1970s, virtually every city in the United States had its own network of bankers, corporate executives, developers and political kingmakers who dominated their private associations, golf courses and exclusive downtown clubs.

The members were affluent white men who wielded power behind closed doors, without accountability to the citizenry. For all their multiple faults — and there were many — they had one thing in common: a shared economic interest in the health of their communities.

As cities like Indianapolis have lost corporate and banking headquarters to a handful of “star” cities, we’ve also lost leadership and sources of the “wherewithal, capital, know-how and prestige” needed to advance municipal and regional priorities.

Robert D. Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, described the long-term secular trends in an email to me: Big ‘anchor’ corporations played a key role in civic life in metro areas, not just in terms of corporate donations to nonprofits but also in bringing to bear leadership to revitalize cities. This used to happen all the time in Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, the Twin Cities, etc.”

These locally based companies, Atkinson continued, “played an important role of helping the various municipalities in a region work more closely together. Banks and utilities were especially critical to this, in large part because their sales base depended on a healthy regional economy.”

Edsall quotes Aaron Renn for the observation that “changes in cities over the course of the last 30 to 40 years have greatly undermined local leadership cultures.”

The banks in most cities were locally owned and were limited by law to their home markets. Their C.E.O.s were extremely powerful both in their companies and communities. And their personal professional incentives were aligned with those of their locality. The only way to grow their banks or electric utilities was to grow the community where they were based. Today, many C.E.O.s of once-local companies are branch managers of global firms. Their job is to sit on local boards and dabble in community relations, but they don’t really call the shots anymore.

Edsall’s column focused on what happened in Baltimore as that city’s “elite” dissipated;  many other cities had similar experiences.

Edsall doesn’t gloss over the considerable negatives that accompanied the “mover and shaker” model, but his analysis also recognizes that when cities lack substitute civic mechanisms, the consequences are also negative.

The question for cities that have lost headquarters and other corporate assets is: what will replace mechanisms like the City Committee? Can we form “committees” capable of replicating the good they did and the role they played without also replicating their lack of democratic accountability and other exclusionary characteristics?

What should a 21st-Century “City Committee” look like?


  1. We need to have these groups organized again… great idea. I’m certainly not a local power broker but I know several men and WOMEN who are… including Sheila Kennedy. I would suggest that after the city election “someone” spearheads putting a bi-partisan group together. I am happy to help. It’s time we have bi-partisanship politics and insist that our elected officials govern for ALL people.

  2. Sheila’s issues today prove what I have been saying for many years regarding many issues concerning our lives today; “Progress does NOT always mean improvement.” It has become, especially in politics, one man’s progress is requires loss to the majority

    The “eye on the pie in the sky” has taken over taking care of local issues and residents and seek more control and more money for the few. Watching part of the “Meet The Press” interview with Arnold Swarzenegger ended with his claim that the current reigning Republicans at the federal level “are good people…”. A rerun of Trump’s comments regarding the neo-Nazis; Conan the Barbarian has spoken and his people will listen.

  3. This looks like an unintended consequence of deregulation, globalization, and consolidation. In Indy, Lily is still the big fish in the pond, but all the other fish swam away. IPL sold out. The banks all consolidated with big out of state banks. The media companies are part of national chains now.

    Amazing and sad to realize what changed.

  4. A transparent alliance of a local power brokers among civic, corporate and public sector can be a positive influence to avert negative consequences of pending dramatic change. I served on a small staff to support the initiatives of the Dallas Alliance (mid 70’s) when the school system faced court ordered inter-district desegregation. The outcome was a comprehensive stabile transition to integration of all schools in the metropolitan area. I staffed the criminal Justice reform committee resulting in construction of a new county jail and reform of the criminal courts. The closed general hospital was renovated to become a minimum security rehabilitation center for misdemeanor offenders as alternative to incarceration. Systemic change can happen when power brokers are empowered to work together for positive outcomes.

  5. Sheila finished her post today with an observation:

    “The question for cities that have lost headquarters and other corporate assets is: what will replace mechanisms like the City Committee? Can we form “committees” capable of replicating the good they did and the role they played without also replicating their lack of democratic accountability and other exclusionary characteristics?”

    A question followed that:

    “What should a 21st-Century “City Committee” look like?”

    Perhaps cities have already answered the question. In other words, they have adapted to these times.

    They elect mayors from the majority party. That party then becomes very influential by using laws to “lock in” the city for the party.

    The downside is that it is a two-way street.

    Think Chicago and Indianapolis.

  6. Ah, nostalgia. Those good old days when the city fathers cared because they actually lived in the city they helped to rule, were recognizable to its citizens, and navigated the same streets as the milkman, the dentist and the maids and servants. Alas, they are gone now, either died or left for sunny Florida or Arizona. Their businesses now closed or sold to the highest bidder… mostly out of state investors.
    Who is left to take their place? Some corporate lackey who resides in Carmel? Perhaps the out of state CEO of one of the big hospitals now owned by an out of state investment firm? Or out of state bank? Or out of state real estate investor. Would any of them know the city? Understand its history? Its population? Its wants? Its dreams?
    Or will the city produce a new core of movers and shakers yet unknown and untried. Men and women who believe in the city and are willing to work for its success and the betterment of all of its citizens. We can only hope.

  7. “City Committees,” or city leaders can do little these days because the State Legislature has control of how state funds are used for towns and cities. In the town of Jasper where I live, Mike Braun looms large over most city and county decisions because he is perceived as having influence. Right now Braun and another person of outrageous wealth in Dubois County are using their influence to force the build of a new terrain highway (the Mid States Corridor) through Martin and Dubois counties connecting I-69 to I-64. The road will take a large amount of private homes, destroy farms and threaten the health of the Hoosier national Forest and the sole purpose of this road is to allow Mike Braun to expand his businesses and acquire more wealth. Braun was able to accomplish this abuse of state power when he was a state representative, and I believe it is the reason he is leaving the Senate to get back into state government. He knows the state govenment is where the real power is concentrated and he intends to use it for his personal benefit.

  8. This is simply the outcome of our “death of community” culture at the city level. Take a gander at “Bowling Alone” and then realize that the only “power brokers” that understand our culture change are those moving us toward authoritarianism for their “power” alone – no “brokering” for them….

  9. What has happened to the displacement of bank and business control in Indpls. is true of the law firms as well, most of the largest of which are now national firms with declining local influence and wealth. The prominent lawyers that formed large firms and used to run the bar and help manage the city is in major respects nonexistent today. There were problems with their monopoly— most especially a lack of diversity of all sorts — but the city would benefit from their influence if we had it today.

  10. The real question is “Who leads?”. If there are no corporate executives to lean on, identify those people first, then you can think about how they can help.

  11. As David Brooks wrote this morning about a more global view that is taking hold, this trickles down to the city level:

    “we live in a dog-eat-dog world; life is a competition to grab what you can; power is what matters; morality, decency, gentleness, international norms are luxuries we cannot afford because our enemies are out to destroy us; we need to be led by ruthless amoralists, to take on the ruthless amoralists who seek to take us down.”

  12. Lester: If per Brooks we cannot afford such human luxuries because of modern power structures inherent in terminal capitalism then perhaps we need to be led by ruthless moralists with a view toward control of such amoralists’ greed via a fairer distribution of the wealth.

  13. Gerald…”imagine”…..what suggests to you this could actually happen: Denmark’s demolishing immigrant buildings/communities? Right-wing parties gaining in nearly every county? MAGA?

  14. Reading through Sheila’s post and the replies, it is clear that the City Committee was not completely understood. The absence of women was a mistake and regrettable (at least until very late when one was added), but it was racially and politically diverse. It was NOT corporate leaders. Rather, it was an unofficial gathering of individuals at the 2nd or 3rd rung of their organizations, including government, business (especially the banks and developers), and not-for-profits. There was no official organization, structure, rules, officers, etc. Rather it was young “get it done” types of individuals who simply wanted to work together to figure out how and then pursue efforts to make our city a better place. The first undertaking was to form small groups of 2 or 3 to go to business, non-tot-profit and governmental leaders with specific questions about what and how they saw initiatives that could move Indy toward that goal. Then, a series of projects were selected, and committees formed to initiate and/or assure the existence and follow through for each of the projects to achieve the agreed goals. The list of the
    results include most of the advances seen in the city over the mid to late 20th century in Indy.

    My point is that the loss of corporate headquarters is not an excuse. All it takes is highly diverse group of concerned individuals with both public interest and access who can do the dreaming and leading to create an even newer Indianapolis. It can be done – either from within the existing city or, at least part of the time, in collaboration with individuals from the surrounding area who recognize the importance of regional perspectives and the vitally important role that it’s Capitol City plays.

  15. The “Good Old Days”…

    I saw a copy of the printed version of “The Indianapolis Star” late last week in a waiting room at Roudebush. Most of one anyhow. I had not seen the printed Star for several years. I was unsurprised that Gannett has turned it into a shadow of what it used to be.

    When the Quayle family owned the Star, it always seemed to care about our city – even if I mostly disagreed with their editorial slant.

    The “Good Old Days” of when Dan Quayle provided a weekly editorial to present the liberal side actually seems like the good old days.

  16. When interstate banking took the financial decision-making out of the hands of local hands, there was no local accountability, no chance to interact with someone who actually lived in the city or even the state. The same is now true of utilities, restaurants, most manufacturing and certainly insurance companies and brokerages.
    We as a country used to share experiences, sitting in the same ball parks, janitors sitting cheek-by-jowl with the people in the head office. Now everything is monetized. If you cannot afford wifi, pay extra for what used to be paid for by advertisers courting customers, then you are excluded from shared experience, forced into tribes or left alone, isolated and powerless by default as there is no access to information or redress.
    tfg still commands the reins of power as we have so recently witnessed. Willful ignorance, hatred of the “other” are still the strongest force in government.
    As he nears some accountability, his cult will get more dangerous as they are so angry and afraid, well-armed and aggrieved. If he is held legally accountable, look for armed resistance just like 1/6 only on a much larger scale. Law enforcement and the military have many cult members in the ranks. Who will they follow?

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