Monday, April 29, 2013

At-Large Councillors Could Jump to Other Races

The passage of SB621, the Unigov reform bill, means many things. The parts that impact Marion County and Indianapolis government the most is the massive amount of power that the Mayor of Indianapolis gets over the City-County budget, including those of independently elected, constitutionally mandated county officeholders. But the part of the bill that received the most attention was the portion that dealt with the membership of the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council. As of January 1, 2016, the council will go from a 29 member body to a 25 member body. It would do so by eliminated the At-Large seats that represent the entire county.

This means that none of the current At-Large councillors, all Democrats, will be able to run for re-election for that seat.

So what would they do? While I have not heard any rumors of what they may do, I do have a working knowledge of approximately what political districts they reside in. So this is simply a list of what they could do, not what they may do.

Leroy Robinson lives in Pike Township within Council District 7, represented by Council President Maggie Lewis. He is likely represented by Democrats in both houses of the state legislature as well. A primary challenge to any of those incumbents is highly unlikely, though he has challenged

Zach Adamson lives in Council District 16. District 16 is represented by Brian Mahern, a fellow Democrat. Mahern has ruffled some feathers for being the most open and vocal critic of Republican Mayor Greg Ballard. And within the Democratic caucus of the City-County Council (and, in general, the Democratic Party of Marion County), there is the "go-along-to-get-along" crowd and there's the opposition. Adamson is firmly in the opposition camp, and if there is an attempt to get Mahern off the council, I doubt Adamson will be the person to do so. His policies line up more closely with Mahern than anyone else on the Democratic caucus

John Barth lives in the Butler-Tarkington area. The general Broad Ripple-ish area of town is one of the few Republican leaning parts of town that isn't in the southern part of Marion County, so running in that district might not be the wisest decision. That part of town was in a fairly close Indiana Senate election, where Scott Schneider narrowly defeated Democrat Tim DeLaney. While things look pretty grim for Democrats running for state legislative seats outside of Marion and Lake County, there's a lot of room for improvement in Marion County's state legislative districts.

Pamela Hickman, who was appointed to the At-Large nomination in 2011 after Joanne Sanders announced she wouldn't run for re-election, has taken a few shots at elected office before. In 2007, she lost in the Democratic primary for council district 4, which is currently represented by Republican Christine Scales. Scales won what may be one of the narrowest victories of a council district election in November 2011 by less than a hundred votes from a well-funded Democratic challenger. Hickman also ran in the 2008 election for Indiana House District 87, currently held by Republican Cindy Noe Democrat Christina Hale.

Based off of this analysis, I think Barth and Hickman probably have the most options open to them. Hickman probably stands the best chance of staying on the council if she chooses to run in her district. The options appear far fewer for Robinson and Adamson, but a lot could happen in two years.

And I'd like to apologize for the errors surrounding District 87. Thanks to Wilson and Zach for the corrections.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Did the Department of Education Get Taken for a Tech Ride?

The Indiana Department of Education, headed by Superintendent Glenda Ritz, seems to be having difficulty with an expensive piece of technology that was purchased before Ritz and her team came into office. Ritz's predecessor, Tony Bennett, inked the deal with a telecommunications company last summer. The telecommunications company also employed one of Bennett's former staffers. Now, as the technology is being delivered over time, there appears to have been little communication during the transition period on what purpose this technology serves and how it's a wise investment.

While I'm sure the politics and the tensions between Ritz and Bennett are what some will focus on, I'd rather take a look at the purchase of all this technology. Specifically, how Bennett defends the purchase:

Reached in Florida, where he is now that state’s education commissioner, Bennett told me that the new technology would connect educators in a 21st-Century way. He called the TelePresence technology “very interactive and incredibly high resolution” and called it a “very powerful tool” that can save money by reducing travel expenses.
“If we expect schools and districts to use technology and innovation, then I believe the Department of Education should be a leader in that,” he said. Pointing to Ritz’s longtime career as a media specialist in Washington Township Schools, he added: “I’m a little shocked that a person whose background was as a media specialist doesn’t have an understanding of how this very powerful technological tool can improve communication between the department and schools.”

The parts' I emphasized lead me to believe that Dr. Bennett was probably swindled by the telecommunications company. It sounds like he heard these buzzwords from his staff and the salesmen who brokered the deal. And, convinced these people using these fancy-sounding words to describe their products knew what they were talking about, purchased the whole package without much outside counsel.

I spent two years doing IT work for a few clients, building computers, running cables through walls, expanding networks, setting up phones and voice mail systems, and getting people off of Outlook and into Gmail for their e-mail needs. I don't type this to tout that I'm some technological demigod. But, as someone who is pretty familiar with technology, I recognize that my knowledge has limits and that there are times I need someone else's opinion to make sure I'm getting a good deal. I think Bennett or the staff that was in charge thought they knew technology, and due to their knowledge, this deal sounded a-okay.

In addition to the total cost of the technology, there is also $152,000 annual charge for software licensing for whatever this telecommunications technology uses to function.

Now, I'm not an expert in telecommunications. But in my experience, there is often software that people have been using in the workplace for a very long time that has an established presence, and keeps being used  regardless of the cost. There is also newer software that is available at a fraction of the cost, but people might not be familiar with the specifics of it. Because people are so tied to tradition, it is very hard to convince businesses and non-profits to switch, even if it is an obvious cost-saving move.

This whole thing is something that could be defended if Bennett's team sought outside counsel to ensure them that they were getting a good deal, or prevented if the advice went the other way. Unfortunately, taxpayers are now stuck with a bill for technology we might not even use.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Most Arguments Against Mass Transit Are Bunk

I was listening to The Great Real America Radio Hour featuring Greg Garrison the other day. And I guess a lot of people chickened out and didn't call in to talk about mass transit the other day when they had one of the Indy Connect people on. So they took to the radio waves today to vent their frustrations on this big government overreach that is probably going to end up in a study committee.

What I heard on the radio were arguments that I've heard a lot that I don't believe make a lot of sense. There was a lot of "how much of a subsidy will it need per ride?" and "Why doesn't private business pay for it?". The irony being is that a lot of these people were probably driving in their cars and on roads that aren't "paid for". Yes, there is a federal and state gasoline sales tax. But the money collected there isn't enough to pay for all the road and highway maintenance performed. Governments take out bonds or sell off assets or do privatization deals to make money to maintain brides and roads and pave sidewalks. This is not new.

There's all types of stuff the government does that doesn't turn a profit. But the theory behind government, on behalf of society, doing these things such as paving roads and providing police and fire protection and so on isn't just because we want government to burn our money for us. But because we believe that these services are worth paying for because it is part of making our society a place we want to live in and a place we want others to visit.

Now that isn't to say that the financial figures shouldn't be a concern. But critics should move away from the general "it costs money, a lot, so it is bad" argument and move on to specifics.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Erika Smith Isn't the Problem, The Indianapolis Star Is

My friend Jon Easter has come to Erika Smith's defense in reference to her numerous columns in support of mass transit. Smith, a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, has published nearly a dozen columns in this calendar year in support of mass transit. Most of her anti-transit critics have attacked her for having an opinion that supports mass transit, but Jon defends it, saying that her job as a columnist is to have an opinion and she's hardly the only columnist to have a pet issue.

I agree with Jon. Erika Smith should write about what she wants. I don't particularly enjoy Smith's style of writing, but it is by no means bad. I just don't enjoy it. Not my cup of tea.

But the problem isn't with Smith. She's staked out an issue and essentially made it her own. The problem rests with the Star as a whole, particularly the overall organization of their editorial pages and columnists.

I am by no means saying the Star needs to go out and find people to argue against mass transit. I don't personally believe that newspapers need to be "balanced" in their editorial pages, that for every pro [whatever issue] column there must be an anti [whatever issue] to balance it out. That cheapens discourse and presents the image that two views are equally valid, and that isn't always the case.

But I do believe in diversity of topics. So when you have one writer focusing on one topic over multiple columns in a short period of time, maybe you don't need several columns from the editorial board echoing pretty much the same sentiments. Encourage other columnists to do other topics, or at least take a different look on the topic.

Journalists of all stripes need to ask themselves who, what, where, when, and why. But a journalism professor I once had liked to expand on the "why" part and add in "Why should I care?". Even the most passionate transit-advocates may eventually get tired of the umpteenth pro-mass transit column that says roughly the same thing as the last pro-mass transit column. It certainly is a major issue. But there are other issues going on that deserve some attention as well. With mass transit seemingly dead for now, hopefully Star readers can expect some new topics soon on the editorial pages.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Democrats, Neighborhood Advocates Winning Image Game in SB621 Debate

I attended the Committee on Local Government hearing yesterday at the Indiana Statehouse. It was held in the basement and probably in one of the smallest rooms they could've used. The seats were filled up well before the meeting started, and many stood in the hallway.

It was no secret that most there were Democrats. There were also representatives of several advocacy and neighborhood groups, including Common Cause and the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Association. These two groups, together, had 27 people signed up to testify against SB621.

So who did the Democrats send to testify against SB621? Actual Democrats. The elected officials that hold political positions in Marion County. Sheriff John Layton represented the Marion County Sheriff's Department. Terry Curry represented the Marion County Prosecutor's Office. Council President Maggie Lewis made it clear she was representing Marion County Democrats on the council.

They didn't send lobbyists or representatives. They sent themselves.

Who did Mayor Greg Ballard send to speak on his behalf? His lobbyist, Joe Loftus. Also in the crowd, but not participating, were current GOP county chairman Kyle Walker and former chairman Thomas John.

As for the details of the meeting, Senator Michael Young (R-Speedway) was present and led the committee through a history of UniGov and what he thought the most important provisions of the bill were. Young made it very clear that he was comfortable with most of the bill going to a summer study committee, but he thought the most important part was the elimination of the four At-Large seats on the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council. He said that election year politics might prevent that from getting done next year and if they aren't eliminated now, they might never be eliminated.

Before the meeting, committee chairman Kevin Mahan (R- Hartford City) said he'd be offering an amendment to eliminate the axing of the At-Large Council seats to the bill.

After testimony from both sides were heard, Mahan said he had 13 amendments that were filed for this bill before he left the previous day. He said, due to the length of the testimony, the committee would only be hearing one amendment, his own. He said other members can propose their own amendments on second reading.

It passed, creating a difference between the Senate and House version. If it passes out of the House, it'll have to be settled in a conference committee.

If the bit about the At-Large between Young and Mahan was theatrics or genuine is beyond my knowledge, but it certainly was interesting.