Category Archives: Local Government

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.

 

 

The Devil’s In The Details

We used to call this federalism.

I really do respect the research done by the Brookings Institution. Overall, I find their methodologies appropriate and their conclusions sound. But every once in a while, I see an “essay” that makes me wonder what the authors have been smoking. The linked article on “constitutional localism” falls into that category.

Specifically, we call for a new civic ethos or governing framework which we call Constitutional Localism, that will shift the greatest number of public decisions possible to the community level—albeit within a clear constitutional framework to protect the individual freedoms and rights won over the past 250 years.

We see the pursuit by Americans of varied lifestyles and cultural preferences as a healthy sign of American freedom and choice, not a destructive force. We need to rebuild public confidence in American democracy, not by insisting on a singular national answer to each problem, but by celebrating the ability of America’s varied communities to find solutions that work best for them. As we see it, the challenge confronting the nation is to find a way to permit this range of opinion and action to flourish while restoring a shared faith in the common democratic values and processes that define American self-government.

Where to start?

First of all–and most obvious–the framework they suggest is the legal framework we have–a significant, albeit diminishing, degree of state autonomy, constrained by the requirement that local laws not violate the Bill of Rights.

The fact that “localism” often doesn’t look very local is a function of 21st Century reality: the inter-related needs of national (and increasingly global) commerce; the ease with which citizens and criminals can cross state lines, the national nature of many threats we face–from medical epidemics to terrorist attacks to acid rain. Etc.

The challenge is to determine what sorts of rules are properly the purview of local lawmakers, and which need to be national in scope. Americans have engaged in arguments about this since the Articles of Confederation. In my state, Indiana, municipalities face the same issue–a longstanding debate about the state legislature’s refusal to allow meaningful home rule by cities and towns.

People of good will can–and will–argue about what political scientists call “devolution,” and what partisans dub “state’s rights.” Which rules should be left to the locals, and which must be made nationally or even globally? To what extent should citizens think of themselves as part of the broad American fabric, and to what extent members of various sub-constituencies? How much consistency is needed to create unum from our pluribus, and how much is too much?

There is a modern twist to this age-old debate, and it is disquieting.

I have blogged previously about The Big Sort and the growing urban/rural divide. Americans appear to be “sorting” ourselves into like-minded communities, geographical “bubbles” where we can live with people who think and act like us. It is part of the polarization that has kept government from working toward that elusive something called “the common good.” Do we really want to encourage cities to create various iterations of “people’s republics” while more rural areas establish enclaves ruled by “Christian Talibans”?

At what point does autonomy become separatism? Inquiring minds want to know…

 

Asking A Favor

I want to ask a favor of my readers in central Indiana–especially those who live or work in downtown Indianapolis, but also those who come downtown for sporting events, theater, restaurants and other entertainment.

I have previously posted about the upcoming project to repair crumbling Interstate bridges and roads in Indianapolis’ downtown. The city has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to correct the dysfunctions that were a consequence of poor decisions made 50 years ago, but it has become increasingly clear that INDOT — the state agency responsible for the project–is determined to dismiss the alternatives presented to them for consideration, and simply augment and buttress the existing configuration. (The agency claims to be evaluating the alternatives, but when they “explain” that putting the downtown interstates in a tunnel would be prohibitively expensive using an example from Syracuse that required boring through solid rock (Indianapolis would only have to dig a ditch), it is apparent that they are not acting in good faith. Apple-to-apple comparisons are available.

Downtown businesses and civic groups, Historic neighborhoods, architects and planners and lots of downtown residents have formed a coalition to push for that evaluation. We aren’t arguing about the need to repair this infrastructure, but we don’t want to lose the opportunity to mitigate the problems caused by the original construction.

The favor? Write a letter to Governor Holcomb, asking him to instruct INDOT to produce  legitimate, comprehensive, good-faith evaluations of the alternatives available. Here is the letter I have sent; feel free to use it as a template.

Dear Governor Holcomb,

I am writing to you as a citizen of Indiana and a resident of downtown Indianapolis who is concerned about a major project being planned by INDOT to repair and widen the portions of Interstates 65 and 70 commonly referred to as the “spaghetti bowl.”

Fifty years ago, when the interstates were constructed, they were routed through an Indianapolis downtown that had been largely abandoned for the suburbs–a downtown dramatically different from today’s vibrant city center. The decisions made at that time divided neighborhoods, exacerbated public safety problems, and significantly delayed the ensuing commercial and residential redevelopment of our downtown.

Those interstates and their bridges are now deteriorated and require extensive and very expensive repairs. Indianapolis thus has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dramatically improve what everyone concedes is a thoroughly dysfunctional system. A thoughtful revamping could improve traffic flow and restore community connectivity and walkability; it could also spur economic development that would significantly add to the city’s tax base.

Whatever decisions are made now will be in place for at least fifty to sixty years, so it is critical that this project fix current problems and enhance—not degrade—the city’s quality of life.  A routine, “off the shelf” repair and lane widening project will simply lock the current problems into place.

In the face of INDOT’s clear intent to proceed with that “off the shelf” plan, a coalition composed of planners, architects, landscape architects, and business and civic leaders has come together and proposed two potential alternatives to the currently proposed approach. Both alternatives would free up considerable acreage for commercial development that would add to the city’s tax base, while the plan currently being considered—with massive concrete walls, longer underpasses and increased noise and air pollution– would substantially reduce the assessed value of a large number of properties, as well as the desirability of significant portions of downtown’s residential and historic neighborhoods.

When the current interstate routes were chosen, Indianapolis had no historic districts; today, those interstates disrupt five such districts. In our city, as elsewhere, historic district designations have generated an enormous amount of investment. Property values have continued to rise due to the attractiveness, walkability and residential character of those districts. INDOT’s current approach threatens that investment.

Fifty years ago, mistakes were made. Indianapolis has a rare opportunity to correct those mistakes. Members of the Coalition do not dispute the need for major repairs. We do dispute the clear preference of INDOT to effect those repairs using a standardized approach with which they are familiar and comfortable (and which would be entirely appropriate in a suburban or rural setting).

This is an issue requiring leadership that can only come from your office. I hope you will ensure that the alternatives proposed by the Coalition receive a genuine, unbiased evaluation.

Yours truly,

If you decide to email or snail-mail the Governor, I’d really appreciate a note telling me you did so!

Tomorrow, we’ll return to my usual ranting….