BROWN: A Primer on Indiana Local Government
“Lots of choc’lates for me to eat,
Lots of coal makin’ lots of ‘eat.
Warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet,
Wouldn’t it be loverly?” — Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady
by Liz Brown
We often discuss the national political system in terms of checks and balances. These same principles guide our local governmental units, and with good reason. The idea is that the three branches work together, as crucial cogs in a municipal machine, all performing separate but codependent functions. Or, to invoke the dreams of Eliza Doolittle, wouldn’t it be loverly if it really worked that way.
Indiana has a robust and exact system to guide our legislative and executive branches but the execution of their powers, or the lack thereof, allows one to overstep another.
This can result in upside-down government. And in these serious economic times, we need our mayors and councils to be on the same page, to work together, to coordinate, so that we are not wasting precious resources.
What we conservatives in particular want is the opportunity to succeed in a free-market capitalist society, to work side by side with our elected officials, the people we put in office, and advise them as to how best to create a fertile business environment. We want our local officials to be ever aware that they are spending our money, and that we would like it spent in an open, transparent fashion with an eye to creating individual opportunity rather than blocking it.
The Wall Street Journal recently compared the reaction of two local governments to similar tragedies, one in Joplin, Missouri, and the other in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Both cities were devastated by major tornadoes last year. Joplin got it right; Tuscaloosa didn’t.
Joplin’s public officials immediately realized that they were there to serve the community, which had granted them power and authority to act in a disaster. They made property rights a priority in a straightforward rebuilding plan. They wisely decided not to wait for federal subsidies. As a result, eight of the 10 affected businesses reopened within the year. The council and mayor had worked “formally and informally” with these businesses to get them back on their feet.
Conversely, the Tuscaloosa mayor seemed to treat his city’s tragedy as “an extraordinary opportunity” to showcase his government. He hired outside consultants to create a 128-page urban-planning document. They expanded zoning restrictions, increased red tape and consequently inflated rebuilding costs for affected businesses. Tuscaloosa officials acknowledge that their plan, still awaiting final council approval, could only work with outside, federal subsidies.
My experience on a city council is that the Joplin officials got it right because they worked from the ground up, not the top down. I think that local government provides a great primer on how all government should work, and how we voters need to support our elected officials to give them the courage to follow the Joplin example.
That said, we have work to do. Scott Rasmussen, in his new book The People’s Money, discusses how the political class views mainstream voters — unfavorably, to be quite frank. Rasmussen notes that while 49 percent of voters believe that government programs actually increase the levels of poverty, the political class (government officials, pundits and what-have-yous inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway) disagree. And that is true even though there has been no change in poverty levels in 45 years (Rasmussen, p. 153).
Also unsurprising is that voters do not like corporate welfare, while politicians and big businesses do. Or as the CEO of General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt, likes to think of it, corporate welfare is a way government can help “invest in our shared future” (Rasmussen, p. 175). The list of those spared in the big bailout of 2008 reads like a Who’s Who of political insiders, with companies like Citigroup receiving $45 billion in bailout and another $300 billion in government guarantees, with no management changes required as was the case with General Motors and the American International Group (Rasmussen, p. 177).
Many of us commoners still believe that we could use more bailout information, i.e., what was spent, and where, and by whom. Brother, If you are going to spend every one of my last dimes, could you at least tell me how?
Unfortunately, the political insiders believe that we in the mainstream are ignorant and deliberately uninformed. Rasmussen points repeatedly to instances showing that many in the political class, on both the Republican and Democratic side, believe that the average voter is stupid, uninterested and apathetic. To the contrary, I believe that Rasmussen’s research demonstrates we are patient but paying attention. Eventually we will rise up and throw the bums out, ever optimistic that if we start over we will get it right.
But such a political “adjustment,” if you will, will require good information. What do we need to know?
For starters, what are the statutorily defined roles of our local executive officer, typically the mayor, or the municipality’s legislative body, the city council? Once these are defined we can decide what we want our elected officials to do — or not do.
The Indiana Code tells us what this symbiotic relationship should look like, and how it should work. The mayor’s traditional functions are to enforce ordinances, supervise subordinates and pass legislation. Most of us know that. How many of us, though, know this: The municipal executive is required to “provide any information regarding city affairs that the legislative body requests”; to “recommend, in writing, to the legislative body actions that the executive consider proper”; and even to “ensure efficient government of the city” (IC 36-4-5-3).
The authors understood that every executive would need a reminder that he is to be more than a ceremonial ribbon-cutter or gadabout. The state code specifies that the executive must not only meet monthly with department heads for consultation and rule-making but should also “prescribe a merit system for selecting, appointing or promoting officers and employees” (IC 36-4-5-6) and keep a record of it all.
It is difficult to square this merit-system requirement with state law permitting its opposite, e.g., mandatory representation by a private union. In my city, Fort Wayne, the previous mayor wasted little time enacting an option to allow all employees to be unionized. The current administration, even though talking about the required merit system for years, has yet to put words to action.
Dare it be suggested that a mayor be removed for ignoring such duties?
In regard to a city council’s responsibilities and powers, the Indiana State Code is more succinct. Pursuant to IC 36-4-6-18, it may “pass ordinances, orders, resolutions, and motions for the government of the city, the control of the city’s property and finances, and the appropriation of money.” Other than sections giving specific details about issuing bonds and incurring debt, there’s not much more there.
There’s one more thing, though, a once important but now atrophic function of municipal government: the power to override a mayoral veto with a two-thirds majority. As citizens of a municipal government, we need to remind our council members that this power exists vis-à-vis the mayor and that we expect them to use it. In sum, the law supports the citizenry’s expectation that council members be full partners with the mayor in the running of our towns and cities. That is not the case in many Indiana cities where the mayor operates as if he were a king and the council his court.
So what do do? First, don’t let your council members profess ignorance of the facts of any issue or controversy. The law leaves them nowhere to hide; they are empowered to ask for as much information as needed to make well-informed decisions.
The Indiana Code even anticipates that a mayor might try to withhold needed information from them. In IC 36-4-6-21, full investigative powers are given to the local council, and these powers are meant for day-to-day application rather than reserved for extraordinary malfeasance. In fact, they should be thought of as constructive rather than punitive, a way for council members to duly carry out their regular duties as stewards of the taxpayers’ monies.
Moreover, the legislative body or council may investigate anyone associated with the city, even the affairs of those “with whom the city has entered or is about to enter into a contract” (IC 36-4-6-21). They may even compel access to all records and even the attendance of witnesses.
When was the last time your council did anything like that?
Clearly, we don’t want our councils to abuse these powers. It is just as clear, though, that this valuable right will be lost unless it is used. Then, we would have to accept that cynical characterization that we are unenlightened and content to be so; we indeed would be responsible for both lackadaisical politicians and perpetuation of the fiscal mess in which our municipal governments are now mired.
As for those truly responsible, our elected representatives, they deserve forgiveness only when bad decisions are based on bad information, not when they haven’t bothered to ask for that information in the first place. This is not hypothetical; throughout our history, the executive, for political convenience, has tried to mislead the legislative. Consider FDR’s promise to Congress of a self-funding Social Security system or LBJ’s promise of a debt-free Medicare system.
To counter such misinformation, we voters, acting through our councils, need to use the statutes to good advantage, to make the system of checks and balance actually check and balance, to expect our elected representatives to dig up the information necessary to justify their votes and actions — to each other, and to us.
Again, none of this was designed to be adversarial per se. Rather, it was meant to allow each of us to serve as one of democracy’s auditors, to double-check the official math. When such a power is exercised on a regular basis, it becomes pro forma, part of the normal course of duties, not a means of confronting or embarrassing a political enemy.
“Walk softly but carry a big stick,” advised Theodore Roosevelt. He didn’t say you had to use the stick, but if you don’t have one at all . . . well, we citizens lose the option of treading softly.
Elizabeth M. Brown, J.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a graduate of Notre Dame and an active member of the Republican National Lawyers Association. She served four years on the Fort Wayne City Council in an at-large seat and was a candidate for mayor in the GOP primary. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.