Category Archives: Local Government

Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.

Follow The (Lack Of) Money

When conversations turn to questions about suspicious public policies, a favorite explanation is “well, follow the money.” The implication is that people who will benefit have “purchased”(or at least influenced) the policy in question.

We very rarely follow the lack of money, although underfunding government agencies and efforts is a time-honored way that lawmakers can pretend to be addressing issues that the public cares about–issues that they (or their donors or supporters) wish would go away.

This tactic is more obvious at the federal level, but it characterizes state politics as well. Recently, I attended a small meeting of professional women–including a few lawyers–who were concerned about the inadequacies of Indiana’s Civil Rights law and the state’s underfunding  of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The meeting was called after several attended a recent speech by a law school professor; she had enumerated the provisions of Indiana’s Civil Rights law that make it difficult or impossible to punish discriminatory behaviors–especially (but certainly not only) sexual harassment.

When I practiced law, the few discrimination cases I handled were filed with the EEOC–a federal agency. The EEOC has jurisdiction over workplaces with 15 or more employees. I was unaware that Indiana’s Commission has jurisdiction only over companies with 6 or more employees–if you are harassed or discriminated against in a workplace with 4 or 5 employees, or fewer, you are just out of luck. No remedy exists.

In cases of sexual harassment, even people who are “covered” under Indiana’s law have no incentive to bring a complaint, since our Commission can award only back pay–if the complainant was fired. No punitive or other damages, and thus no incentive for an employer to “straighten up and fly right.”

Not only that, but in order to have a case adjudicated in state court, the employer must agree to be sued. In writing. And religious employers (including religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals) are exempt. (Given the number of news stories about preachers who prey while they pray, I found this rather astonishing.)

A recent Law Review article put it bluntly:

Deviation from the administrative process is uncommon because the Indiana Code requires written consent from both parties before the civil suit commences. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event that a complainant obtains the respondent’s consent, another provision of the Indiana Code mandates that the case be tried by a judge, not a jury. Even if the employee wins the case, his damages are limited to “wages, salary, or commissions.” Furthermore, he cannot recover his attorney’s fees. Thus, the combined effect of these statutes unfairly biases state civil rights proceedings against complainants.

As appalling as I found these elements of Indiana’s law–inadequacies which evidently place us among the four least-protective states in the country–what really focused my attention on Indiana’s lack of commitment to nondiscrimination and fundamental fairness was the agency’s funding. The Commission is one of the most poorly funded state agencies, and its employees are among the most poorly compensated. If our state law were to be improved, and the Commission’s jurisdiction expanded, it simply wouldn’t have the capacity to hear the additional complaints. It can barely cope with its workload now.

What I learned at that meeting was that the persistent refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to pass a hate crimes enhancement law is part of a larger pattern. Not only are we one of only five states without a hate crimes law, but previous efforts to add “four words and a comma” to our civil rights statute–to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of identities protected against discrimination–have also gone nowhere.

Our civil rights statute is among the four least protective in the country, and we significantly underfund the agency that is charged with enforcing the few protections we do offer.

Welcome to Indiana, the Mississippi of the North….

 

The Boys’ Club

Residents of Indiana who follow the news have come to know the state’s current Attorney General, Republican Curtis Hill, as an arrogant and self-important grand-stander– and an African-American version of his hero, Donald Trump.

In more ways than we previously appreciated, evidently.

Hill has been popular with culture warrior Republicans who voted for him and can thus reassure themselves that their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-social welfare positions aren’t racially motivated.

Since taking office, Hill has pursued a radically right-wing agenda; he has also spent an exorbitant amount of taxpayer dollars “upgrading” his office. Personnel turn-over since Hill assumed control of the AG’s office has been high, and has cost the state an estimated $3.6 million– suggesting a working environment that is less than collegial– and scuttlebutt is that he routinely pisses off his fellow office holders, Republican and Democrat alike.

Now, Hill is accused of groping four women–a state legislator and three staffers– at a legislative reception. According to one of them, as quoted in several media reports,

An intoxicated Hill put his hands on her back, slid them down her back, put them under her clothes and grabbed her buttocks, according to the memo. She told him to “back off” and walked away, but Hill approached her again later and again reached under her clothing and grabbed her. She again told him to “back off,” according to the memo.

I realize that this is not an unusual story in our era of #metoo. But then it gets interesting– and by “interesting,” I mean “infuriating.”

The party at which these events occurred was in March. Following the allegations, top legislators, including top Democrats, initiated an investigation. No information about the accusations or the subsequent investigation was communicated to female Democratic legislators, even those in leadership positions. The women lawmakers became aware of the allegations only when they became public, and they became public only because the Indianapolis Star obtained a leaked eight-page memo prepared by the law firm hired to investigate the allegations.

The legislative leaders–including two top male Democrats– issued a joint statement along the lines of “nothing to see here, let’s move along,” in which they agreed that an investigation had been completed and “the matter has been addressed with the Attorney General to the satisfaction of the employees involved.”

Really? From what I hear (admittedly, via the gossip grapevine) the “employees involved” are anything but satisfied. Meanwhile, the public remains in the dark about the nature of the “resolution.”

Hill, of course, indignantly denies everything, and I’m sure he’ll continue to deny engaging in inappropriate behavior, at least until other women come forward. (Let’s face it, if the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it’s that previously well-behaved men in their 50s don’t suddenly and inexplicably begin grabbing women’s buttocks.)

Tawdry and inappropriate behavior aside, here’s my question: Why did the legislative “boys club” close ranks ? I understand why Republican legislators would try to bury an embarrassing episode of gross behavior by one of their own, but why did two top Democratic legislators initially join them? Why weren’t Democratic women in leadership even informed of the allegations and investigations?

If anyone is wondering why so many women are running for political office, this sort of infuriating behavior by the “good old boys” of both parties might offer a clue.

In Washington, both male and female Republicans have demonstrated their willingness to put party above country. (And yes, Susan Brooks, we’re all looking at you.)

Here in Indianapolis, at least some male Democratic legislators are evidently willing to put gender above party. The camaraderie and mutual back-scratching of the good old boys’ club is evidently more important than a few affronted women–or even scoring political points.

After all, boys will be boys.

 

 

The Nationalization Of Politics

Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Dan Hopkins makes one of those observations that seems so obvious once you’ve read it…

Hopkins addresses one of the troubling features of today’s political reality: the nationalization of our politics. As he notes, the actions of state and local elected officials have an important and immediate effect on our lives–why, then, do Americans seem  fixated on Washington, D.C. almost to the exclusion of local politics?

He attributes much of the change to the transformation of American media markets, and how that transformation has affected voters’ knowledge and participation levels.

According to Hopkins, Americans are increasingly turning away from media outlets that provide state and local coverage, substituting Fox News or MSNBC or other sources providing national coverage for their hometown newspapers and television news reports.

The effects are felt in turnout numbers:

It’s not exactly news that turnout for state and local races is lower than turnout for presidential races. But this pattern’s very familiarity may have obscured just how surprising it is. After all, states and localities take primary responsibility for schools, transportation and criminal justice, three policy areas that can have a major effect on people’s day-to-day lives. And if people were motivated to vote primarily by the idea that their vote might decide the outcome, they would be far more likely to cast a ballot in a small local elections, where their odds of being the decisive vote are much higher, than in a national one.

In a federalist system, it is always noteworthy when national politics draw a disproportionate level of attention — and all the more so when the gap between national politics and state and local politics has been growing sharply. That’s exactly what has been happening in the past few decades: Voter turnout for president has remained roughly constant while turnout for state and local races has fallen.

Hopkins is correct in noting that, since 1980, Americans have increasingly turned to national media to learn about politics.  Where I find his analysis wanting, however, is his attribution of that change to a perceived advantage that these national content providers have over what he calls “older, spatially bound media sources.”

I think Hopkins misses a far more compelling explanation: local news has become dramatically less newsworthy, when it has survived at all.

Television news has always been more superficial than newspaper reporting–it also has depended on local newspapers more than most viewers appreciate. And we’ve lost local newspaper journalism.

Not long before the Internet became ubiquitous, major chains like Gannett were busily buying up local newspapers. When Internet competition cut dramatically into the profits generated by those local papers (Craig’s List alone cost them billions annually in classified advertising revenue), those papers became far less profitable. Many were still saddled with the debt incurred when they purchased the local papers, many of which had been bought at a premium justified by pre-Internet profit margins.

Most papers responded as our local newspaper did– by drastically cutting editorial staff.  Today, our daily paper has little to no news content other than sports and entertainment. No one is regularly covering the statehouse or city hall. There are no beat reporters assigned to school board meetings, or city-county council meetings, and on the rare occasion when a reporter is sent to cover some government activity, he or she lacks the background knowledge needed to ask the pertinent questions, or to really understand what is going on.

State and local government has become less visible and accountable because we have no local journalists devoted to making making them visible or holding them accountable. (And speaking of accountability–a recent study conducted by a Notre Dame professor has confirmed a direct correlation between a rise in the cost of local government and the loss of local newspapers.)

We aren’t reading the local paper any more because there is very little actual news to read.

Show Up–It’s Important!

Apologies to readers outside central Indiana, but this is important.

Local readers may have missed an announcement that there will be an “open house” to provide information on the System-Level Analysis of the entire downtown interstate system (aka the North Split) on Wednesday May 23, from 3:00 to 7:00, at the Biltwell Event Center, located at 950 S. White River Parkway S. Drive.

Presentations by INDOT–the Indiana Department of Transportation– will be given at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.  There will be an opportunity for attendees to weigh in–and given INDOT’S disinclination to listen to urban planners, local residents and Indianapolis leadership, a big turnout is really important.

A bit of background:

Indianapolis’ downtown Interstates are at the end of their useful life and are becoming unsafe. INDOT bureaucrats have made it clear that they see absolutely no reason to deviate from the approach they’ve used for 50 years: prioritize concrete over livability and treat in-city infrastructure no differently than interstates crossing rural cornfields. Build huge “buttress walls” and add lanes to the existing overpasses, increasing the length of the street-level “tunnels” that already make street-level walking and biking unpleasant and historic residential neighborhoods less livable.

Thus far, they’ve treated the civic leaders and downtown residents who want to use this opportunity to correct a fifty-year-old mistake as annoying interlopers.

Indianapolis certainly wasn’t the only city through which misguided bureaucrats rammed downtown highways–disrupting street grids, depressing commercial activity and destroying once-vibrant neighborhoods. There is now a half-century of research documenting the resulting damage to health, air quality and public safety in cities throughout the country. In addition to their very high maintenance costs, these structures play havoc with nearby property values and remove acres of prime real estate from the tax base.

Other cities have removed their downtown freeways, and the results have been uniformly positive.

Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA, and Milwaukee, WI replaced their downtown Interstates with boulevards, saving billions of dollars, increasing property values on adjacent land and restoring urban neighborhoods, and another ten cities are in the process of decommissioning theirs. Concerns about congestion and traffic delays have proved unfounded—exits from Interstates are limited, while boulevards allow access to the grid, so traffic moves more evenly.

The problem is that–although Indianapolis will bear the brunt of bad decisions– we don’t get to choose among available alternatives. The state controls the process, and resistance from INDOT has been intense–and disingenuous.

When local residents first objected to INDOT’s proposal to add lanes and erect towering walls as its “solution,” the agency insisted that illustrations produced by the Rethink committee (available at https://rethink65-70.org) didn’t reflect the agency’s as-yet unfinished plans. Yet when INDOT finally unveiled its version, it was identical to those illustrations.

INDOT spokespersons dismissed tunneling as an alternative, citing enormous costs incurred in Syracuse, but neglecting to mention that Syracuse is tunneling through bedrock. (Indianapolis would dig a ditch through dirt.) INDOT has been equally dismissive of the boulevard alternative, which would be far less expensive to build and maintain than INDOT’s proposed repairs and additions to the existing Interstates.

When urban planners and residents of historic neighborhoods raised concerns about the impact on the urban fabric, INDOT responded that such matters aren’t their concern. Their reviews are limited to traffic movement and safety.

We need to make those negative impacts their concern.

INDOT is speeding this project through the required hearings in a transparent effort to forestall any changes to its standard, cookie-cutter approach by getting the project too far along to be changed.

We local citizens may not be able to change the direction of the nation–but we can make INDOT slow its rush to double down on a fifty-year-old mistake. We can show up Wednesday, we can petition the Governor (INDOT does have to listen to him), and we can insist that they genuinely consider the practical and cost-effective alternatives employed elsewhere.

If you live in the Indianapolis area, please make time on Wednesday to demonstrate that doing it right this time is important to a large number of residents–that we aren’t going away just because we are annoying bureaucrats who want to stay in their cookie-cutter comfort zone.

It’s really important.