Category Archives: Local Government

A Good Try, Fort Wayne

A recent newspaper article reported on the demise of a “controversial” Fort Wayne ordinance–another victim of Indiana’s lack of genuine (or even pretended) home rule.

The ordinance (which in a fair and honest world should not have been controversial) addressed the common political practice called “pay to play,” the cynical shakedown of people who want to do business with local government.

In her 13-page ruling, Judge Jennifer DeGroote blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance that restricted how much money the owners of a company could give elected officials and still bid on city contracts.

The ordinance forbid any company from bidding on a city contract if any owner, partner or principal who owns more than 10% of that company gave more than $2,000 to the political campaign of a person with responsibility for awarding contracts.

“The city of Fort Wayne attempted to address legitimate concerns regarding quid pro quo exchanges or pay to play arrangements that tie contracts for professional services to contributions made to elected government officials who have authority to influence the awards of such business,” DeGroote wrote. “However, the court finds that efforts by Fort Wayne, as well-intentioned as they may be, to address such practices in the 2018 ordinance is not permitted under current Indiana law as no such authority has been extended to municipalities.”

Specifically, DeGroote’s ruling stated that the ordinance was superseded by state law, specifically the Home Rule Act, which grants municipalities the ability to self-govern in areas not covered by the state. Elections, under state law, are the domain of the Indiana Election Commission.

Every time I see a reference to Indiana’s “Home Rule Act,” I snicker. The title belongs with other dishonest efforts to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. (George W’s “Clear Skies Act” comes to mind.) In reality, Indiana’s cities and towns operate under numerous onerous restrictions, forcing municipal policymakers to “kiss the rings” of state lawmakers in order to do much of anything.

One recent example: Indianapolis had to beg the General Assembly for permission to hold a referendum to determine whether we could tax ourselves to improve our mass transit system. It took three years, and even then, our state overlords prescribed permitted and forbidden modes of transit that they would allow us to consider paying for.

Fort Wayne’s effort to clean up an unsavory and unethical fundraising practice ran afoul of the reality that governance in Indiana operates under the heavy hand of an excessively gerrymandered state legislature.

There are two lessons here: First–as many of us have said repeatedly– Indiana really, really needs genuine home rule. And second, laws patterned after Fort Wayne’s rejected ordinance should be statewide. (Nationwide, actually.)

Perhaps a legislator from Fort Wayne–or anywhere– could introduce a similar measure during the next session of the General Assembly. It wouldn’t pass, of course, but it might shine a light on just how corrupted the process has become.

 

 

 

Lessons From A Small French Town

It’s a truism among urbanists that small towns in the United States are dying.

Here in Indiana, the data confirms the bleak prognosis: Main Streets are filled with boarded up stores, wig shops and formerly vibrant emporiums that have been turned into sad “museums.” Young people move away as soon as they can, leaving a graying and resentful population behind.

The phenomenon is not restricted to the United States; everywhere, cities are booming while small towns are on the same, sad trajectory. So a recent report in the Guardian was eye-opening.

On a lane in what was once considered eastern France’s grimmest town, a street artist is up a ladder finishing a mural, the independent bookshop has a queue at the till, the organic cooperative is full of customers and Séverine Liebold’s arty independent tea shop is doing a brisk trade….

Just over a decade ago, Mulhouse, a town of 110,000 people near the German and Swiss borders, was a symbol of the death of the European high street. One of the poorest towns of its size in France, this former hub of the textile industry had long ago been clobbered by factory closures and industrial decline. It had high rates of poverty and youth unemployment, a shrinking population, and more than 100 shops empty or boarded up. The centre had become associated with gangs….

Today, Mulhouse is known for the staggering transformation of its thriving centre, bucking the national trend for high street closures.

In the past eight years, more than 470 shops and businesses have opened here. Mulhouse is unique in that 75% of new openings are independents, from comic book stores to microbreweries and organic grocers. It is one of the only places in France with as many independents as franchises. And it is one of very few places in France where more shops are opening than closing.

Mulhouse was only one of a large number of dying small towns in France.

French political powers woke up late to the problem of dying town centres. Outside the Paris region, an average of 11% of high street premises lie empty, similar to the UK. But France, which has a powerful hypermarket industry and lobby, has for decades hastened town centre decline by allowing out-of-town superstores to mushroom over kilometres of dull grey hangars on the outskirts of towns.

Leaders only recently turned to the issue, fearing boarded up shopfronts and vanishing services could help usher in Donald Trump-style populists. Polls showed that in small French towns, the fewer the services on offer – notably post offices – the higher the vote for the far right.

What caused this town’s turnaround? How did Mulhouse buck the trend?

The simple answer is public investment in public amenities.

Mulhouse set out to rebalance the housing mix. Generous subsidies for the renovation of building fronts expedited a facelift of more than 170 buildings. Security and community policing were stepped up. Transport was key – with a new tram system, bike schemes, shuttle buses and cheap parking.

But making the town’s public spaces attractive was just as important, with wider pavements, dozens of benches, and what officials deemed a “colossal budget” for tree planting and maintenance, gardening and green space. Local associations, community groups and residents’ committees were crucial to the efforts.

The idea was to create a town center where people could feel good, where they could congregate. The town re-appropriated the town’s center as a kind of agora, the place where everyone could meet. Olivier Razemon, the author of a recent study called How France Killed Its Towns, says town centers should be seen as a theatrical backdrop to life’s encounters, with the understanding that: “People don’t go to the town centre just for shops, but because it’s pleasant, because they want to meet up.”

There were several other aspects to Mulhouse’s revitalization. An important element was emphasis upon independent, “home grown” enterprises offering wares not available in the big box stores.

The major driver of the town’s resurgence, however, was its substantial public investment in public amenities: public transportation, restoration of the built environment, generous plantings and landscaping that made the town’s public spaces attractive–all of the elements of what urbanists call “quality of life.”

In so many small towns, unwillingness to spend tax dollars on these “quality of life” elements creates a vicious cycle of disinvestment and abandonment. Mulhouse chose to invest heavily in them instead, and to create a virtuous cycle. It worked.

There’s a lesson there.

 

Gerrymandering And Indianapolis’ Potholes

Today is the day the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two political gerrymandering cases–one from North Carolina and one from Maryland. Given the current composition of the Court–and its politicization in this Age of Trump–I’m hopeful but not optimistic that the Court will find the practice unconstitutional.

Everyone who reads this blog knows that gerrymandering is destructive to democracy. It’s one of the most significant reasons that the United States is ruled by a minority, one of the reasons why studies consistently show that measures supported by 80% or more of Americans don’t translate into policy–and why policies supported by the much smaller percentages of citizens who are wealthy and well-connected are much more likely to become law.

But it took my husband’s remark at a recent anti-gerrymandering house party to bring home the connection between gerrymandering in Indiana and the thousands of potholes residents of Indiana dodge every spring.

As Common Cause’s Julia Vaughn had just explained, most residents of Indiana live in the state’s metropolitan areas–in cities. But thanks to the way gerrymandered districts have been drawn, a majority of policymakers in the Statehouse represent predominantly rural areas. And that, as my husband pointed out, leads to state distribution formulas that significantly favor rural areas over urban ones.

My husband spent six years as Indianapolis’ Director of Metropolitan Development. His experience with the state’s fiscal favoritism for rural areas angered him when he dealt with it then, and it has continued to be an abiding irritation. But as often as he has fulminated about the unfairness of those distributions, I had never made the connection between them and gerrymandering, until that house party discussion.

Especially when it comes to money for the state’s streets and roads–and schools–Indiana’s distribution formulas are more generous to much more thinly populated rural areas of the state  than to the cities where the majority of Indiana’s citizens live. And that won’t change so long as the state’s districts are drawn to keep the GOP in control–because GOP voters live predominantly in the rural areas of the state, not the cities, which tend to vote Democratic.

Even a cursory examination of Indiana’s House and Senate districts as currently drawn will illustrate the degree to which urban Hoosiers are unrepresented, the degree to which urban areas have been “carved up” and the resulting portions married to rural areas in order to dilute the voice of city-dwellers.

There’s a lesson here.

It’s important to reform gerrymandering in order to reclaim “one person, one vote,” and to reverse the damage being done to the country every day by the current plutocracy. But if that goal seems too abstract, if the connection between a “gamed” and dishonest redistricting process and everyday life seems vague–think about the connection between equal representation and distribution formulas the next time you hit one of Indy’s ubiquitous potholes and bend a rim, or flatten a tire.

With or without the Supreme Court, gerrymandering has to go.

 

 

What The NRA Hath Wrought…

When I saw this headline, “Owner of stolen handgun not liable for child’s death even when weapon is kept loaded and visible on car seat,” I couldn’t believe a court would rule this way on so obvious a case of negligence.

When I read the article, I understood.

Matthew Kendall, 16, of Huntingburg, died July 22, 2016, after he was shot in the head with a Glock 9 mm handgun that was taken earlier that day by a 15-year-old boy who was showing the weapon to Kendall when it discharged, according to court records.

Kendall’s mother, Shelley Nicholson, sued Christopher Lee, of Huntingburg, seeking damages for negligence in connection with Lee leaving his loaded handgun visible through the windows of Lee’s unlocked and unattended truck.

However, both the Dubois Circuit Court and a unanimous three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Nicholson’s case cannot proceed because Indiana law immunizes gun owners from civil liability for any subsequent use of their stolen firearms.

The court quoted the law as providing immunity from civil liability based on “an act or omission” of the owner, if the weapon was stolen and later used to commit a crime or harm someone.

Judge John Baker, writing for the Court of Appeals, said the plain language of House Enrolled Act 1349 required the court rule in favor of Lee, because regardless of how Lee stores his handgun, if the handgun is stolen, he is statutorily immune from liability for any resulting harm.

The Judge considered himself bound by what he called “the clear intent of the General Assembly,” which was to shield gun owners from liability even in situations like this, when an owner failed to take even the most minimal precautions to safely store his gun.

It’s hard to imagine anything more negligent than leaving a loaded gun on the passenger seat of an unlocked car. Absent the statute enacted by the Indiana legislature–undoubtedly under the influence of the NRA–the owner would be liable for his own careless behavior, as he should be.

Americans who own homes or other properties are routinely sued by folks who fall on steps or sidewalks that have been negligently maintained, or who are harmed by other obvious hazards that a normal person knows or should know are capable of  causing harm to a visitor. Laws that punish us for our own neglect or irresponsibility are there for a reason: to remind us that we have a duty of care, and should avoid negligent behaviors that can cause harm to innocent others.

It is absolutely scandalous that lawmakers (presumably in thrall to the clout of the NRA’s gun nut lobby) decided that a standard of behavior that has informed tort law pretty much forever just needn’t apply to people who might be careless with an inherently dangerous possession–a weapon that has one use and one use only–to injure or kill.

If you have a tree with a loose limb in your yard, you need to take care that it doesn’t fall and hurt someone who might sue you. But if you have a loaded gun available to whoever walks by, no worries.

The Indiana General Assembly has protected you. And gerrymandering protects them.

They Aren’t Even Pretending Anymore

For the past several years, political scientists and pundits have published articles bemoaning the erosion of democracy and democratic norms, and Americans who follow government and politics have nodded in measured agreement.

I say “measured” because we still retain the trappings of democracy–campaigns, elections, the free press that so annoys Donald Trump. But this year, we are coming face-to-face with a reality we’ve been avoiding: our elections are mostly a sham, and legislators–who haven’t felt the need to reflect the will of those who voted for them for quite some time–no longer are bothering even  to pretend that they are “representative.”

David Leonhardt has noticed.

In November, the people of Utah voted to provide health insurance for about 150,000 state residents who lacked it. Last week, Utah’s legislators overruled their own constituents and took away insurance from about 60,000 of those 150,000 people.

The legislators claimedthey were trying to save money, but that’s not a credible rationale: The federal government would have covered the bulk of the cost. The true reason — which the legislators weren’t willing to admit publicly — was a philosophical objection to government-provided health insurance.

Utah’s turnabout is the latest worrisome exampleof politicians rejecting the will of voters.

The offending politicians have been mostly Republican, as they are in Utah. “You see a rising, disturbing trend here of equivocation, if not worse, in the commitment to democratic norms on the part of a growing number of Republicans,” Larry Diamond, a Stanford University democracy expert, told my colleague Ian Prasad Philbrick. “Is this what the Republican Party wants to be? The anti-democracy party?”

Leonhardt provides examples from Idaho, Maine and Michigan, and notes that, In Missouri,  legislators are attempting to subvert a ballot initiative that would reduce gerrymandering.

In Utah, the legislature partly overturned a new law allowing medical marijuana.

These examples involved lawmakers ignoring the results of state referenda. Indiana doesn’t allow referenda, but our lawmakers have been equally willing to ignore the clear wishes of their voters.

This year, both the Indiana and Indianapolis Chambers of Commerce have made passage of bias crimes legislation a priority. Business and civic leaders throughout the state formed an organization, Forward Indiana, to support the bias crimes bill. The governor has asked the legislature to pass it. In a poll of Hoosiers on the issue, 84 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of independents, and 63 percent of Republicans supported passage of a hate crimes bill focused on marginalized Hoosiers.

The Senate GOP eviscerated the measure, gutting the language that made it legally effective. All indications are that the House–which, like the Senate, has a Republican super-majority with a history of homophobia–will concur.

If Indiana lawmakers actually represented their constituents, passage would have been a no-brainer. But thanks to gerrymandering, Indiana lawmakers feel free to ignore the wishes of the public they ostensibly serve, and they do so with some regularity.

As Common Cause has explained, we have a system in which the legislators choose their voters rather than a truly democratic system in which voters choose legislators. And until that  changes, lawmakers will continue ignoring We the People.

Like the lawmakers in Utah and other states, they don’t even bother to pretend any more.