Tag Archives: public services

Oh, Canada!

Today, my husband and I return from a ten-day trip that took us out of the U.S. and—far more consequentially—much of the time, out of areas in which we had access to the internet. My blog platform allows me to schedule posts, but my ability to share those posts on Facebook was pretty hit or miss. So—apologies to readers for the lack of regularity.

It’s experiences like this that make me realize how utterly dependent I have become upon today’s technology, and how helpless I feel when I can’t immediately read and respond to emails, or consult Dr. Google to find information.

This particular trip was a long-planned cruise vacation with our younger two grandchildren, ages 12 and 14. No parents invited. We began in Boston, and ended with Quebec City and Montreal, Canada. (Along the way, I think we guaranteed the continued profitability of Gray Lines tours…)

In many ways, visiting Canada doesn’t seem different from visiting other parts of the U.S. Even in Quebec, where French is the “first” language, everyone speaks English, and the clothes and customs are familiar. Starbucks and McDonalds and Subway are ubiquitous.

But there are differences, and they reflect well on Canada. And not so well on us.

The news was full of stories about Canadians’ embrace of Syrian refugees, for example. Canadian families wanting to “adopt” a refugee family (in the sense of helping that family acclimate, find housing and employment, and willingness to function as a resource) significantly outnumber available “adoptees.” The articles provided an embarrassing contrast to so many Americans’ deeply suspicious and negative response to that same refugee population.

Then there was the contrast provided by Canada’s physical and social infrastructure.

Quebec’s sprawling historic districts were meticulously maintained. Streets everywhere we went were free of potholes, and public art was everywhere—including on the sides of buildings and on the supports for highways. In both cities, public parks, public squares and other public spaces were everywhere and filled with people. Montreal, we are told, was just named one of the globe’s “smart cities.” (We were duly grateful–we finally had  wifi!)

Canadians all seemed to approve of their Premier. Those with whom we spoke were uniformly grateful for and supportive of the country’s national health care system. Several taxi drivers bragged about the efficiency of their cities’ winter snow removal (given the amount of snow they get, it’s an obvious priority.)

And everyone with whom we interacted was so polite….albeit quite willing to share with Americans that they are appalled and repulsed by Donald Trump.

Travel is generally instructive, if only to make us look at our own cities with fresh eyes—to ask ourselves what our cities and neighborhoods would look like to someone from another country. What would we brag about? What would embarrass us?

A few days as a tourist allows only a very superficial assessment of any city or country. I have no idea what civic or governmental problems bedevil the residents of the charming places we visited, what urban challenges are unmet, what social problems remain unresolved.

Still—it’s hard not to get a bit wistful when you see all that well-maintained infrastructure…..




Woe is Mayor

These are rough days to be a mayor. If you don’t believe me, look at just two of the issues bedeviling Mayor Ballard right now: police and parking.

In both cases, the Mayor has correctly identified a problem. But in both cases, there are substantial questions about his chosen solutions.

Managing the police is a perennial problem for mayors. Controlling crime and keeping citizens safe is an essential foundation for all the other things a mayor must do. It is no exaggeration to suggest that economic development, service delivery and a city’s quality of life all depend upon the safety of its citizens.

Given the importance of public safety, it’s understandable that Ballard wanted to control IMPD. When he assumed office and wrested control from Sheriff Frank Anderson, he made clear his belief that the Mayor should be the one held accountable for the department’s performance.

Those of us who disagreed pointed out that, in Indiana, the Sheriff is a constitutional office. Unlike the Director of Public Safety, he is elected by and answerable to the voters. Unlike mayors, who have multiple responsibilities, a Sheriffs’ duties and focus all involve law enforcement. If the Sheriff has responsibility for police behavior and public safety, and scandals erupt, voters can express their disapproval quite clearly at the ballot box. If the Mayor controls IMPD, voters must balance approval or disapproval of his public safety performance against their approval or disapproval of other initiatives, sending an inevitably mixed signal.      

The Mayor’s current policing woes stem from that decision to seize control early in his term. Both that decision and his current proposal to privatize parking enforcement will hamstring future mayors as well.

Once again, the Mayor has identified a legitimate issue. Our parking meters are old and outdated; our parking fees have not been raised in many years. It is time to take a holistic look at all aspects of downtown parking—revenue to the city, the effect on downtown businesses, the placement of meters and so on. None of the solutions identified for existing problems, however, requires the City to give a private company control of our parking decisions—and a significant portion of our parking revenues—for fifty years.

As several people have pointed out, had a contract of this sort been in effect a few years ago, the City would not have been able to give permission to build the Cultural Trail. 

The Mayor’s office defends the proposed privatization by pointing to the large capital outlay needed for new equipment, but the City could easily issue a twenty-year revenue bond for that purpose, and keep both control and all revenues in excess of those needed for bond repayment.

One of the most significant leadership challenges mayors face is deciding when to keep control of a public service and when to vest that control elsewhere. These are structural decisions, and they are especially consequential because they tie the hands of future administrations.

They are ultimately the decisions that determine a Mayor’s legacy.