Trash Talking

Back when Indianapolis built its waste incinerator to generate energy, the move was applauded as state of the art, and it was. The “deal” made at that time required the City to provide enough trash to allow the vendor, Covanta, to produce steam used to heat downtown buildings.

But time marches on. As cities across the country have encouraged recycling, Indianapolis has persistently lagged the nation in the percentage of people doing so. (We are one of the few places that charges folks for the “privilege” of recycling, which might have something to do with our lackluster performance.)

Ostensibly to address that low level of participation, the Ballard Administration entered into an agreement with Covanta to build a new recycling facility. But as Carrie Hamilton of the Indiana Recycling Coalition has written:

This facility would move the city’s residential collection to a one-bin system that would mix waste and recyclables in the same bin. Covanta, which already has a contract to burn the city’s waste for energy production, has been contracted to separate recyclables from waste at the proposed MWP facility. In exchange, it gets a minimum $100 million contract putting it in charge of both waste and recycling for all of Indianapolis until 2028…..

There are a number of concerns about this plan, but at the top of the list is this: Covanta secured this contract – and the rights to the city’s recycling future – without having to go through a competitive bidding process.

The contract calls for use of a process known as “Dirty Recycling” –it allows residents to throw all their trash into one receptacle; actual separation is to occur at the Covanta facility. This is a process that is simply not suitable for use in many industries that purchase recyclable materials.

Among the many concerns raised by this contract are its length–it locks Covanta in until 2028– several “put or pay” provisions that actually penalize the city if residents recycle more than the contract anticipates, and the contamination of otherwise recyclable materials in a highly questionable methodology. But the major issue is, once again, the utter disregard of the process by which such agreements should be executed.

There are all sorts of arguments–legitimate and less so– to be made about the impact of recycling (see John Tierney’s Op Ed in last Sunday’s New York Times), but there is no legitimate argument for ignoring the legal processes intended to protect taxpayers against crony capitalism and/or intemperate decision-making.

If the contract with Covanta is good for the City, it would have survived the vetting that the law requires.

If the Ballard Administration were truly interested in protecting the interests of citizens and taxpayers, and genuinely interested in an environmentally-appropriate recycling program, there would be no need to bypass the public bid processes mandated by law.

Garbage isn’t the only thing that smells here.


About “The Least of Us”….

Sunday sermon time…

Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. The reasons vary: some people are frightened or intimidated, believing that unkempt and sometimes strange-acting street people pose a physical danger. Others feel guilt over a comparatively privileged status. Still others simply lack compassion and want “those people” to stop cluttering “their” landscape. A San Francisco Catholics Church evidently fell in the latter category.

First the water rained down, and then the condemnation rained down — and on Wednesday, San Francisco’s embarrassed Roman Catholic Archdiocese said it would tear out sprinklers that have been dousing homeless people sleeping in the doorways of its premier church in the city.

I’m sure Jesus would have been proud….

Here in Indianapolis, we haven’t been hosing down the homeless, but we’ve been hosing them in other ways.

As I’ve previously written, last year, a local group of independent filmmakers documented the City’s embarrassing treatment of homeless individuals (and the fact that NO public dollars are spent on programs to help them). The film actually motivated citizens to demand action by the City County Council–and the Council responded by passing a “Homeless Bill of Rights.” (Can we spell “democracy in action”? Very encouraging.)

Then the Mayor vetoed the ordinance.

The “usual subjects” defended the Mayor’s veto, because (wait for it) the constitution already gives homeless folks these rights. (Which were being so carefully observed by local authorities…)

The Huffington Post has an interesting report on the veto, under the headline: Hoosier Reputation Taking a Beating. (That’s a bit unfair–thanks to our legislature, our reputation is already pretty badly damaged….)

Prior to the historic vote and once humanitarian arguments were set aside, both sides debated the cost of granting equal rights to persons without housing. Opponents of the HBR feared high litigation costs should persons experiencing homelessness file lawsuits demanding equal access to public places.

I hate to point out an inconsistency here, but if homeless folks already have these rights, then they also already have the right to sue. And I haven’t noticed any “flood of litigation” over the City’s constant violation of those rights.

Proponents of the HBR cited statistics proving the cost of incarcerating the persons experiencing homelessness — something that is done now because homelessness is effectively illegal in Indianapolis — makes the HBR a cost saving measure.

We can argue costs and abstract rights until the cows come home, but I can’t get one scene from the documentary out of my head: the police trashing the pathetically few possessions of homeless people in an encampment that had become a sad but supportive “community”–throwing into dumpsters the books, chairs, tents and other items that these down-and-out folks had managed to hold onto, and telling them to scatter, to “go somewhere else.”

But not telling them where, because in Indianapolis, there are few, if any, places to go.


Time for Ballard to Go

The City of Indianapolis is seeking bids for a massively expensive Justice Center. This huge and complex project–which makes a lot of sense, conceptually–is being headed up by a twenty-something administrator on behalf of the Ballard Administration.

The Indianapolis Business Journal requested a copy of the Request for Proposals the City issued in July. Its request was denied, and the excuse for that denial was so ridiculous that even the Pence Administration’s public access counselor has protested.

The City is claiming that the information in a Request for Proposals is confidential. Think about that.

An RFP is supposed to be publicly distributed to any and all developers or development teams that might conceivably be interested in bidding on the project. By definition, the information it contains is public, and the IBJ–not to mention members of the City-County Council who have also been kept in the dark–are entitled to see it.

Marc Lotter, the Mayor’s spokesman, responded that the RFP was released to “three qualified bidders,” and that it would not be made public until after a successful bidder has been chosen.

Why would an honest, aboveboard administration hand-pick three bidders, and proceed to share information only with those developers? Why would it keep the terms of the proposed project secret until the City is legally committed to proceed?

The whole purpose of an RFP is to cast a wide net; to encourage genuinely competitive proposals from anyone or any team qualified to perform. “Pre-selecting” those who will be permitted to respond undercuts the entire purpose of the exercise.

At best, pre-selection of a small group of developers makes it likely that responses will be less competitive and the project will be more expensive. At worst, secrecy and pre-selection are intended to ensure that the “right” people get the City’s business.

The Justice Center is estimated to cost over $500 million dollars. Quite a plum project. When that much tax money is being spent, the need for transparency–the need for public assurance that the project is being handled ethically and in a fiscally-responsible manner– is obvious.

The City says that the RFP contained “trade secrets” necessitating secrecy. As the public access counselor noted, “If an RFP sent out into the marketplace does indeed contain trade secrets, it stands to reason that the secret is out once it goes to potential contractors.”

Unless, of course, those “secrets” are only going to one’s cronies.

Up to this point, I have attributed the many ethically dubious decisions of the Ballard Administration (the 50-year lease of our parking infrastructure, the garage no one uses in Broad Ripple, etc.) to those advising our “accidental’ Mayor, who has always seemed in over his head.

Maybe I  have underrated him. Maybe he really does know what he’s doing.

Either way–puppet or puppet master–he needs to go.


Outsourcing the Mayor

Per yesterday’s Indianapolis Star, we learn that

The Republican administration of Mayor Greg Ballard has launched a full scale public relations and lobbying campaign to seek support from residents and the City-County Council for a proposed $400 million criminal justice complex.

The surge is spearheaded by a government relations consultant and former Ballard aide who landed a $750,000 contract from the city to see that the project gets approved.

This is unbelievable.

The obscene amount of the contract is indefensible, of course, but even more stunning is the implicit admission: here is a man who has been Mayor for seven years, yet still doesn’t know how to work with the City-County Council, or sell his own administration’s programs or projects to the public.

Councilors on both sides of the aisle confirm that Ballard has largely been missing in action, that he has consistently failed to consult with the city’s legislative branch, not only refusing to communicate but resisting even reasonable requests for information.

And activists concerned about Indianapolis’ failure to deal with our mounting crime problem have pointed to the Mayor’s absence from community events and even press conferences called to address the issue.

Still–who’d have thought he hated his job so much, he’d be willing to spend $750,000 to avoid doing it?

I knew Ballard had adopted Goldsmith’s penchant for privatizing and contracting–but this is ridiculous; he’s contracting out performance of his own job. 

Ballard’s base salary is $95,000. I think We the People are entitled to a refund.


Ballard Catches Mourdock-itis

The generally-held impression of Mayor Greg Ballard has been that he’s a nice guy who’s just in over his head–way over in many respects. Lately, however, he’s been doing things to change that impression–he’s evidently learning fast how not to be a nice guy. Some of this newly-found petulance and partisanship has emerged since Ryan Vaughn–he of the parking meter fiasco–became Chief of Staff, but the buck–as Harry Truman used to say–stops at the Mayor’s own desk.

When the Democrats won control of the Council, new Council President Maggie Lewis was quick to reach out and invite co-operation. When Councilor Brian Mahern held up the Mayor’s TIF proposal, Democrats Vop Osili and Joe Simpson worked to end the impasse. Given the parties’ inevitable differences in priorities, these early signs of conciliation pointed to emergence of an occasionally tense but generally workable accommodation.

Then came the budget. As the Indianapolis Star reported

Facing a deadline to approve or veto the nearly $1.1 billion city/county budget for 2013, Ballard signed it. But his changes, without further negotiations and a quick agreement with the council, would withhold nearly $32 million in income-tax money from Marion County offices and agencies.

That money helps pay to run the courts, keep the jails open, run elections, prosecute or defend criminals, process crime scenes, investigate deaths and provide other public services such as surveying land and collecting property taxes.

The common denominator of the cuts: they affected only the agencies held by Democrats. The Mayor’s own operation, the city offices that he controls, weren’t cut.

The Mayor justified his use of the line-item veto to cripple Democratic offices with language about fiscal responsibility. But genuine fiscal responsibility would involve shared sacrifices across public agencies. (Sort of reminds me of a husband who tells his wife “we can’t afford that new coat you need because my cable TV bill has to be paid.”) He also voiced disagreement with a proposed assessment of the CIB. If he had a genuine problem with that assessment, however, he could have negotiated an equitable resolution with the Council.

Instead, Ballard presented the Council with a fait accompli. He waited until the last minute to deliver a budget that will cripple a number of critical services–for no reason other than those services are being delivered by the opposing party. In Ballard’s cynical budget, public safety takes a back seat to partisanship. It’s his way or the highway.

Shades of Richard Mourdock.