Category Archives: Local Government

Skinning That Cat

There’s an old adage to the effect that there is more than one way to skin a cat. I thought about that when I read a recent opinion column in the New York Times, focusing on Mitch McConnell’s packing of the federal bench with rightwing judges.

The article began by acknowledging that McConnell and Trump–enabled by their allies in the Senate– have packed the federal courts with more than 200 conservative judges over the last four years. Their remaking of the federal judiciary includes three Supreme Court justices, and is part and parcel of the rightwing effort to achieve what it could never manage to achieve through legislation– “including eliminating health care for millions and undermining what remains of the Voting Rights Act.”

The authors of the essay remind readers that we are not entirely helpless in the face of this ideological takeover; they advocate taking a page from the conservatives and forging “a new form of progressive federalism.” 

First, state elected officials must be ready to respond quickly to, or act in advance of, rulings from the Supreme Court. If, for example, the Affordable Care Act is weakened or struck down, Democratic state legislatures should have bills drafted to introduce that day to protect people who will lose coverage. And officials must act now to protect and expand access to reproductive health care — especially for poor women and women of color — given the clear threat to Roe v. Wade.

Are excessively business-friendly federal courts making it easier for companies to pollute? Harder for government agencies to address racism? Progressive states can pass policies “to patch holes ripped open” by those courts.

if the Supreme Court further constrains the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, states can go after corporations for violations of state securities and consumer protection statutes. If the court adopts cramped readings of federal environmental statutes, state regulators must use their tools to go after the country’s largest polluters. And if the court continues to undermine federal bribery laws, state attorneys general can bring corrupt politicians to justice under state criminal law.

What about states like Indiana, deep red and highly unlikely to follow that prescription? In those states, progressive advocacy groups and lawyers outside government can bring lawsuits to enforce rights protected by state constitutions. When I was Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, our affiliate brought such suits, and several were successful. And in the early days of the gay rights movement, organizations like Lambda Legal and the ACLU achieved state-by-state victories that ultimately helped change a nationally homophobic legal environment.

Recently, Nevada became the first state in the country to officially protect same-sex marriage in its Constitution. As the essay reminds us, several states have refused to allow their police take part in the federal government’s immigration crackdown. States

can rely on conservative decisions that promote state independence from the heavy hand of Washington. The very jurisprudential tools that make it harder for Washington to achieve progressive aims can empower states to do so instead.

Ironically, the same federalism that facilitated slavery and Jim Crow under the veil of “states’ rights” can be turned to progressive ends.

It’s slower and will take more work, but there’s more than one way to skin that cat.

 

The Problem Isn’t “Fake” News–It’s No News

The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that former Indiana Lieutenant Governor John Mutz has made a two million dollar gift to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The gift will establish a Chair in Local News that will focus on local news sustainability–a focus that is desperately needed. 

The article quoted Mutz’ reasoning:

My political experience has dramatically shown me how important reliable local news sources are to local governments and economies,” Mutz, 85, told IBJ. “Without it we may lose our democratic society and that would be a tragedy. I’m greatly concerned about local communities that are essentially news deserts. 

I have frequently posted about the dire consequences of this lack of local news. Not only do communities lose a necessary government watchdog, they lose an essential aspect of being a community.

In October, the Washington Post ran an article exploring one such “news desert”–following the loss of a small community’s only newspaper. Ashley Spinks had been the managing editor, and most recently the only journalist, at a weekly newspaper in a rural community in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. As the article noted,

Spinks took photos of the first day of school, laid out the newspaper and edited freelance pieces. She attended Floyd town council meetings, covered Confederate monument debates, did award-winning reporting on the water system problems and wrote news-you-can-use pieces, like the one helpfully headlined “Don’t feed the bears!”

Spinks had been interviewed by a local public radio outlet about cuts made to the paper after it was acquired by a corporate owner, Lee Enterprises. When she responded candidly, she was summarily fired, and Floyd lost its local news. As the report notes, Floyd is not alone. A recent study found that some 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers have simply vanished since 2018, and more outlets are disappearing since the onset of the pandemic-related recession.

Floyd’s Mayor told the Post that the newspaper had been the primary source of information on what’s happening in local government, and shared his concerns about citizens turning to unvetted social media posts for information.

Washington Monthly recently ran a series titled “Can Journalism be saved?”After repeating the statistics on journalism jobs lost and newspapers lost, the first article in the series reminded readers that the losses were industry-wide.

The damage ranges from the shutting-down of quality national magazines like Governing and Pacific Standard to large layoffs at online outlets like BuzzFeed and VICE. But the greatest shrinkage is happening at the local level, among large metropolitan dailies, neighborhood and small-town weeklies, and outlets that have long covered Black, Hispanic, and other minority and ethnic communities. As of last year, two-thirds of counties in America lacked a local daily newspaper. Half had only one newspaper, often just a weekly. And more than 200—mostly poor, rural counties—had none at all. Those news outlets that remain are often what are referred to as ghost papers, with few staff and little local reporting. (Local TV news has declined far less, but tends to cover stories that newspapers originate, and with less depth.)

The only remaining newspaper in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star, is one of those “ghost” papers. The Star was never a great newspaper, but years of corporate ownership have decimated editorial staff and stripped it of what reporting depth it may once have had.

The decline in what one scholar has called “the journalism of verification’ has been toxic to the functioning of American democracy.

One study found that in communities where newspapers close and there are no reporters keeping an eye on the decisions of local officials, municipal government wages, deficits, and borrowing costs rise. Local news outlets tend to be far more trusted by readers on both sides of the political aisle than national publications. When they disappear, citizens turn to national news sources, often partisan ones, or rely on social media for information. The result is more party-line voting and small-town residents mobilizing against mythical antifa infiltrations. Indeed, as this magazine has reported, the rise of authoritarian politics in America correlates to an alarming degree with the waning of local news.

When there isn’t a trusted source of local news that also carries some verified national reporting, it becomes much easier to construct an information bubble from social media posts and internet conspiracy sites.

The Washington Monthly series identifies several ways government might reinvigorate journalism without jeopardizing editorial independence–much as the Founders did by establishing favorable postal rates for newspapers.

Whatever the mechanism, a solution is  critical and overdue. 

 

Pandemics And Parking Meters

Back in 2011,  Indianapolis (under  then-Mayor Ballard) entered into a  fifty-year agreement with  a consortium called Park Indy  to upgrade and manage the city’s parking meters. At the time, I was  among those who argued strenuously against that agreement.

I  had  two major objections  and two never-answered questions.

The first objection was to the fifty-year length of the contract. Even if the deal had been less one-sided fiscally, decisions about where to place meters, how to price them, what lengths of time to allow and so on have an enormous impact on local businesses and residential neighborhoods. As I said at  the time, these are decisions requiring flexibility in the face of changing circumstances; they are most definitely not decisions that should be held hostage to contracting provisions aimed at protecting a vendor’s profits.

My  second objection was that, under the terms of the contract, downtown developments and civic events would become more costly. More often than not, new  construction interrupts adjacent parking. If the city is managing its own meters, it can choose to ignore that loss of parking revenue, or decide to charge the developer, based upon the City’s best interests. Street festivals and other civic celebrations also require  that meters be bagged, and usually there are good reasons not to charge the not-for-profit or civic organization running the event. The ParkIndy contract required the City to pay ACS whenever  interruptions require bagging the meters and disrupting projected revenues from those meters.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic, of course. That’s the point. When you contract away your  flexibility, your authority to make decisions that are responsive  to  unforeseen events, you end up owing a lot  of money to the private  vendor. Indianapolis closed certain streets to  traffic,  in order to allow restaurants to serve customers outdoors, a move that probably kept some of them afloat during a very difficult time. That required bagging  the meters  on those streets. WISH reports that the city  has already had to pay Park Indy 450,000 under the contract–at a time when the pandemic is wreaking  havoc with city and state finances.

File that  payment under “adding insult to injury,” since, according to periodic reports, the city has never come close to receiving the income it projected when this ill-conceived privatization agreement was negotiated. In May of 2016, the Indianapolis Star reported that the city was reaping only about a quarter of the dollars ParkIndy projected when it paid $20 million for the right to operate the meters until 2061.

Then there  are  my two questions.

As I wrote at the time, why privatize at all? Parking isn’t rocket science. There was never a satisfactory response to the obvious question “why can’t we do this ourselves, and keep all the money?” Why couldn’t Indianapolis retain control of its infrastructure, and issue revenue bonds to cover the costs of the necessary improvements? Interest rates were at a historic low at the time, making it even more advantageous to do so. If the Ballard administration was too inept to manage parking, it could have created a Municipal Parking Authority, as Councilor Jackie Nytes  suggested at the time.

What was the compelling reason to enrich private contractors and reduce (desperately needed) City revenues.

And finally,  why ACS –the company that is the primary partner of ParkIndy. There had already been extensive publicity about ACS’ performance problems in Chicago; there was also troubling information about the company’s track record in Washington, D.C., where an audit documented mismanagement, overcharging, over-counting of meters, and the issuance of bogus tickets (ACS got all the revenue for tickets). The audit  found  that Washington had lost $8,823,447 in revenue and experienced a twenty-fold increase in complaints from the public.

The  only answer I  could  come up with was that the Ballard Administration got an  up-front infusion of cash which helped it hold  the line on taxes while Ballard was  in office–and who cares about the future? 

This was actually something of a modus operandi for Ballard.  An academic paper I co-authored  with a colleague  shared the results of our investigation into the convoluted structure of  the city’s sale of its water and sewer utilities. The highly sophisticated financing scheme for the sale had the effect of shifting costs to utility rate-payers that should properly have been assumed by taxpayers.

There’s a saying among politicians: to elected officials, “long-term” means  “until the next election.” 

And I  used to think that “fiscally responsible” meant “pay as you go.” I was  so naive…

It Isn’t Just A Few ‘Bad Apples’

Will cellphone cameras do what years of eyewitness testimony couldn’t? 

As protests have swelled across the country, those who the late, great Molly Ivins memorably called “the chattering classes” have been debating similarities and differences between today’s demonstrations and those of the 60s. One of the clearest differences is the ubiquity of cellphone cameras–and the number of videos that have emerged capturing police–many in riot gear– brutalizing peaceful protestors.

As an article in The Guardian noted,

The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country.

Many assaults were captured on video. Had the murder of George Floyd not been similarly captured, no doubt it would have been “explained” in a way that absolved the officers involved of blame–much as the Buffalo Police Department tried to evade responsibility for shoving and injuring an elderly man by issuing a press release that said he “tripped and fell.”

For more years than I can count, Americans have given police the benefit of the doubt when the facts were even slightly at issue. When facts haven’t been malleable, when the officer’s behavior was too clearly out of line to claim otherwise, the standard line has been “every profession has some bad apples.”  (We’re supposed to ignore the fact that police unions vigorously defend those “bad apples”and deploy their considerable resources to defeat mayors and prosecutors who try to hold police accountable.)

Are there lots of “good cops”? Sure. But in far too many police departments, the organizational culture works to silence them, and to incentivize a defensive “us versus them” mentality. A vivid example: when the evidence was too graphic to ignore, and the officers who shoved the elderly protestor were charged with battery, 57 members of the police force quit the unit to protest their suspension–and actually applauded them as they left the courthouse after being charged.

A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review had an article explaining organizational culture as “consistent, observable patterns of behavior” and quoted Aristotle for the observation, “We are what we repeatedly do.”

The culture of an organization is powerfully shaped by incentives — money, of course, but to an under-appreciated extent, intangible rewards such as status, recognition and approval, and sanctions.(It is not inconsequential that officers who connect with their community are far less likely to be recognized and applauded than those who make many arrests, especially ones involving force.) 

Ultimately, organizational culture is the “sum of values and rituals which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organization.”

People who study policing concede that the culture of many American police departments is toxic. Last November, The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion focusing on the challenge of changing the “values and rituals” that–according to one panelist, formerly a police captain– too often pit police against the people they are supposed to be protecting.

Another panelist noted that training often encouraged a “warrior mentality” that is attractive to a subset of individuals who “may not always be the best fit” for police work. Panelists also noted a lack of transparency and accountability–and the frequent use of internal cover-ups to protect officers who habitually use excessive force.

When bad behavior isn’t punished, it breeds impunity.

Five Thirty Eight recently posted an article about that impunity, and the reasons police officers are so rarely held criminally accountable. 

Many major cities continue to pay out millions of dollars each year to settle lawsuits against police officers, too often without firing officers who have been repeatedly sued. So even though police misconduct has drawn greater national attention, it’s still really difficult to hold police officers legally accountable for any kind of misconduct — including fatal violence.

According to the article, only 110 law enforcement officers nationwide have been charged with murder or manslaughter in an on-duty shooting — despite the fact that around 1,000 people are fatally shot by police annually. Of that 110, only 42 were convicted. (Fifty were not and 18 cases are still pending.) Many of the convictions ended up being for a lesser offense. Only five were convicted of murder and failed to have that conviction overturned.

Part of the problem is understandable. Judges and juries are inclined to believe law enforcement officers.

But.

When I worked in City Hall, I became convinced that, other than the police union, the most significant barrier to accountability was prosecutors’ reliance on, and close working relationship with, local police. At the time, I lobbied–unsuccessfully–for a law requiring appointment of special prosecutors in such cases, to eliminate the unavoidable conflict of interest. 

Policing is a difficult job. It often requires split-second decision-making. We can be cognizant of that fact without giving bad cops permission to act like animals. Cellphone cameras can help.

 

 

Oh, Indiana…..

At the end of each semester, those of us who teach university courses are inundated with research papers; it’s a time I refer to as “grading hell,” because my 30+ graduate students each submit a 20 page paper, analyzing a chosen policy issue.

The grading can be tedious, and at times I’m unpleasantly surprised by a student’s inability to write clearly (or even grammatically) or by conclusions that suggest the student didn’t understand anything we discussed in class. On the other hand, I end up learning a lot from the many excellent students who have chosen to examine policies with which I am unfamiliar.

And then there’s another category: papers that address problems or issues with which I have been engaged, but only superficially, and that provide me with greater detail and background than I previously possessed. This semester, I received a couple of those; especially a paper about Indiana’s regulation of day care facilities from one of my better students.

The paper focused on the reasons that child care “ministries” are treated differently from other day care operations under Indiana law.

The analysis confirmed everything I had previously heard about the influence of Eric Miller and his organization, “Advance America” on the Indiana legislature. Advance America bills itself as Indiana’s largest “pro-family and pro-church organization.” (In Indiana, “pro-family” is code for “anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive choice and pro-voucher support for fundamentalist Christian religious schools.)

In 1993, when legislation was moving through the Indiana General Assembly that would have subjected child care ministries to some regulation, including hand washing procedures, Miller rallied his organization to flood legislators with phone calls. Miller explained his opposition to the legislation, as presented in the Indiana House Family and Children Committee, by noting, “this is a public policy debate. Who’s responsible for caring for the children of the state of Indiana? The parents or the state?”

As the paper pointed out,  Indiana’s child care ministries are exempted from most of the rules that apply to other child care providers in the state–there are virtually no regulations they must observe or standards they must meet. Only 11 other states exempt religious-based organizations from some or all child care regulations, mostly southern states like Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida.

In her paper, my student argued that this lack of regulation, far from being required by the Free Exercise Clause, constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. And she pointed out (and documented) that, in Indiana, this regulatory system that discriminates in favor of religious providers of child care fails to adequately protect children, serve families or prepare children for k-12 education.

While objections to regulation of these “ministries” are couched in religious freedom terms, it’s likely the real reasons are less spiritual: less regulation means lower costs. The ministries can hire fewer workers, need not offer staff training, and needn’t upgrade facilities that government inspectors would find deficient.

(Such ministries also are free of the regulations prohibiting physical punishment. If God wants “youth ministers” to beat the devil out of that three-year-old,, they can follow God’s dictates….)

In 2012, a 22-month old drowned in a baptismal font while in the care of a registered child care ministry in Indianapolis, and there were once again efforts to impose minimal regulations on these facilities.

During the 2013 legislative session, state Rep. Rebecca Kubacki authored legislation that would require day cares (including child care ministries) that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers to run background checks on employees and volunteers… Miller activated his Advance America network by telling them the legislation was “an attack on religious freedom.”  He pressured lawmakers via email, phone calls flooding statehouse offices and direct conversations from legislators’ own ministers. Kubacki didn’t back down, saying, “I’m here to protect these kids, and if I don’t get re-elected, I don’t care.”  In 2014, she lost in the May primary.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Indiana’s legislature has a Republican super-majority. Most members of that super-majority–again thanks to gerrymandering– represent rural areas of the state where Eric Miller and the fundamentalist churches that fund his organization hold considerable political sway– and Miller has a history of threatening and bullying legislators who are insufficiently subservient to his version of “religious freedom.”

“Suffer the little children” assumes a whole new meaning….