How Are We Doing?

When Ed Koch was Mayor of New York, he was famous for stopping people on the street and asking them “How’m I doing?”

Very few mayors are interested in generating such face-to-face feedback; most, like Mayor Ballard, seem to resent efforts to grade their performance. And that raises a legitimate question: How do we citizens decide whether Indianapolis is being governed well or poorly? How do we decide that for any city?

Are all such evaluations hopelessly subjective and/or political?

Perhaps not. As Citiscope reported recently, the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization is trying to help. It has issued a new measurement standard for cities–a rubric to follow when collecting data. Cities that choose to participate will have a new, objective mechanism with which to compare themselves with peer cities around the globe.

Take a look at the 46 performance indicators that participating cities will need to track (or fudge), and then use to compare themselves to others.

Where are we doing well, and where are we falling short?

How are we doing?

Let’s Talk Trash

No, not that kind.

Back in Hudnut Administration days, Indianapolis entered into an agreement that was ahead of its time: rather than sending trash and garbage to rapidly-filling and hard to site landfills, we’d use it to generate energy. The City has continued that arrangement ever since.

The problem is, that was then and now is now.

What was a forward-looking effort in the late 1970s is a dinosaur in 2014. In the intervening years, most of America has (grudgingly) recognized the importance of recycling and reuse. Evidently, as with so many other city functions, news of the changes in what constitutes “best practices” hasn’t reached the Mayor’s office. Instead, Ballard has just announced plans for a ten-year extension of its contract with Covanta, the company burning our trash.

The proposed contract would not require people to separate out recyclable items–the promise is that Covanta will handle that messy job by “sorting” at a new plant. As environmentalists have pointed out, the proposed facility is what is known as a “Dirty MRF” (Materials Recovery Facility). It’s called dirty because the quantity and quality of the recycled material is dramatically degraded in the process.

The proposed agreement would recycle a mere 23.5% of the material. Even Governor Pence–hardly an environmentalist–has called for a goal of 50%. Furthermore, the agreement excludes glass, one of the most “recyclable” materials there is. Covanta says there is no  market for it; experts say Indiana’s glass industry is desperate for it. Believe whom you will.

Dirty MRF’s are nearly extinct in the US. Clean ones–like the ones Republic and Ray’s operate locally–are proliferating.

Experts tell us that over 92% of what gets thrown away can be recycled or composted. But that requires a well-thought-out, free curbside recycling program, like those run by most other cities our size.

Doing things that made sense in the 1970s don’t always make sense 35+ years later, and “keeping on keeping on” isn’t public management.


City Housework is Dull, But Really Important

No one likes housework. I grumble when I change sheets ; sweeping is a chore. But like all–okay, most–humans who inhabit a built environment (aka a “house”), I know that failure to tend to these mundane tasks will eventually make my home unlivable or dangerous or both.

What is true for houses is true for cities. I realize that the everyday tasks of running a city–cleaning and paving streets, tending to parks, dealing with budgets and myriad other necessary chores–aren’t the fun parts of being a Mayor. But that doesn’t make them less important.

One of my persistent gripes with the Ballard Administration is its neglect of the essential housekeeping tasks that keep a city livable. To be fair, some of those tasks are assigned to municipal corporations like the Health and Hospital Corporation, but those corporations are part of city government, and citizens have a legitimate right to expect the city administration to monitor their performance and ensure that they are doing their job–especially  when public safety is at risk.

That isn’t getting done.

Case in point: We own a property–a double–across from Brookside park. Several weeks ago, a really bad fire destroyed the house immediately east of that double.  You can see through what is still standing.   The remaining roof and sidewalls are clearly dangerous, and burned timbers lie haphazardly on what was the front porch.

It’s very dangerous. And it is still unsecured, weeks after the fire, and despite repeated calls to Health and Hospital. If neighborhood children decided to play in it–or if a homeless person tried to squat there– the likely consequences would be serious.

When I was in City Hall, promptly securing such properties was a high priority. (So was Code Enforcement, which by the looks of several neighborhoods is currently nonexistent.) Money isn’t a problem–a lien against the property secures repayment of amounts spent to make the premises safe.

I understand that things like weed control, securing abandoned properties, and managing city services is anything but glamorous. I’m sure it’s much more fun to bid for a Super Bowl or build a cricket stadium. But there is no excuse for ignoring the boring, necessary work of managing the various agencies that are needed to run a city.

I know that when Mayor Ballard announced that his administration would make “public safety number one” he was thinking of crime. But securing dangerous structures is also a public safety issue.

He’s batting zero on that one, too.


Follow the Money

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.


Ends and Means

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.