Tag Archives: transparency

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.


This Blew My Mind

A former student–President of the Chamber of Commerce in his small Indiana town–sent me a link to this Ted Talk.

There are several “nits” one might pick, but it is a fascinating argument, and well worth the 20 minutes it takes to listen. At the very least, it’s a reproach to arrogant assumptions about the way others should live….

That said, it brings to mind an important point raised by Fareed Zakaria in his book The Future of Freedom: the issue is not democracy, it is liberty. Living under the tyranny of a majority is not appreciably different than living under the tyranny of an autocrat. There can be a wide variety of mechanisms for making decisions about governing. We should judge them not just by their effect on the material well-being of the governed, but by the degree to which they respect fundamental individual rights.

I Guess Their Safety Doesn’t Count…

According to this morning’s Indianapolis Star,

“A prayer group is getting special access to the Statehouse for the opening day of the 2012 session.

People attending Capitol Commission Indiana’s prayer day at the Statehouse can show a copy of an email message to skirt an expected large crowd of union members protesting the so-called “right to work” legislation on opening day Wednesday. News of the waivers emerged after state safety officials set a 3,000-person limit on the number of people in the Statehouse at one time.

Capitol Commission State Director Matt Barnes said Monday that his group isn’t getting special treatment, noting that anyone attending a scheduled Statehouse event can use a special entrance.”

So–let me see if I understand this. The reason the limit was imposed was concern for the safety of citizens who were coming to the Statehouse (formerly known as the “people’s house”). But as we learned a couple of days ago, the safety of lobbyists with special passes isn’t a concern. Okay–I can understand why the administration might not care about the well-being of lobbyists (although, if the lobbyists are injured, who will pay the tab at St. Elmos??) But religious folks who are coming to pray? Their safety isn’t important?

I’ve frequently used this blog to advocate for greater government transparency, but someone should tell Bosma and Daniels–I didn’t mean “transparently dishonest.”

Self-Awareness Was Never Goldsmith’s Strong Suit

Former Indianapolis Mayor and current New York Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith has a letter in the Wall Street Journal, in which he explains why “progressive government” is obsolete. The letter is vintage Goldsmith.

The letter is a far more intellectual and polished version of the complaints we’ve heard from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels: government is broken because of the special interests. Those special interests–unions and civil service employees–have “stifled the creativity of public-sector workers and reduced the ability of public investments to create opportunities for citizens.”

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that many of the work rules that have resulted from collective bargaining agreements are unwieldy, and should be and could be revised and streamlined. But what are we to make of statements like this one: “State law mandates that over 1500 job titles must be filled through competitive written exams, specifically ignoring an employee’s actual performance or qualifications.”? If I were a suspicious sort, I might think that a public manager’s subjective evaluation of an employee’s performance (perhaps the willingness of that employee to support certain policies or even candidates for office) would be less reliable than an employee’s ability to demonstrate knowledge on an objective examination.

And in fact, it was for precisely that reason that the examination requirement was imposed. So it is ironic–and telling–that Goldsmith then says “We are even required to administer a civil service test for the head of our Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit! (We found a way around it.)

Those of us who lived in Indianapolis during the Goldsmith Administration will recall that he “found a way around” a number of rules he didn’t like. (We might also find the letter’s emphasis on transparency somewhat ironic, since transparency was hardly the hallmark of that administration.)

The letter also reinforces the complaints of Governors like Walker and Daniels about worker pensions; Goldsmith complains that New York City will have to pay 8.4 Billion to “fill a hole in its unfunded pension obligations.” Those “greedy” public workers, who chose to take some of their pay in the form of deferred compensation (i.e., pensions) were not the people who decided to divert those funds to other uses, rather than funding their pension obligations at the time. New York, like Indianapolis and many other cities, willfully ignored their pension obligations for years. Why should workers who relied upon those pensions be the ones who take the hit?

What is most striking about the letter is also what is most reminiscent of Goldsmith’s tenure in City Hall: his either-or approach.

Goldsmith is not a stupid man, and the problems he identifies are not all imaginary. But there is no nuance in his worldview. These problems are the result of rules, he tells us, and the rules are not working optimally, so they must go. He doesn’t tell us what, if anything, he would do to insure that public employees would not be subject to arbitrary dismissals, that political insiders wouldn’t be hired in lieu of nonpolitical professionals for jobs requiring expertise, or how he would handle the other evils these rules were intended to address.

Blowing things up was always Goldsmith’s style. But America’s cities need people who can fine-tune systems and fix problems–not bomb throwers.

We need snow removal–not snow jobs.

Defining Our Terms

Anti-tax fervor has become a defining aspect of American politics—so much so, that here in Indiana we are getting ready to enshrine a so-called “property tax cap” in the state’s Constitution. (The existing law imposing such a cap is evidently considered inadequate.)  Those of us who question the wisdom of such a measure are often accused of being “for” taxes—a clearly incomprehensible position.

Let me pose a question. What is a tax? Do we know one when we see one?

The answer begins with the simple premise that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Goods and services cost money, and that money has to come from somewhere. If the city picks up your garbage, payment comes from your taxes; if you employ a private scavenger service, you pay for pickup directly. There may be economies of scale that make the city service cheaper or there may not, but however the service is provided, it has to be paid for.

Policymakers face a series of questions. The first, and most important, is whether a service needs to be provided at all. What is the benefit to a community of garbage collection, or bus service, or libraries? Do we require police and fire services? A sports arena?

In some cases, the public benefit is obvious. If we don’t collect the garbage, we risk the public health; if we don’t provide fire protection, public safety suffers.  Of course, we could simply require that property owners buy these services on the open market; in fact, many communities used to do just that. These and other public services were “socialized”—that is, they were provided communally—because it was cheaper and more efficient to have government provide them. They didn’t suddenly become “free”—we just paid for them differently.

If we want services, we have to pay for them. Calling that payment a “user fee” or a “utility bill” doesn’t change that. We can certainly debate whether we really need a particular service—some people would be perfectly happy to dispense with massive sports stadiums, others would cheerfully do without libraries. But if we do want them—and our streets paved, our neighborhoods policed and our parks mowed—we have to pay for them.

Transparency in government is considered a good thing because it allows voters to see what their elected officials are doing, and where their money is actually going. The problem with the current anti-tax fervor is that it penalizes transparency and rewards official game-playing.  Voters’ hostility to paying taxes—coupled with their insistence on continuing to receive services—sends elected officials a clear message: lie to us.

“Cap” our taxes and find “nontax revenue sources.” Shift expenses from operating to capital budgets, so you can borrow money to cover operating expenses. Blame the federal government for service cuts. Hide the street repair money in our utility bills.

It’s more costly when we do things that way—but the payments aren’t called taxes, and evidently that’s all that counts.