Half Past the Month: You versus the Mandarins

January 11, 2017

LOCAL GOVERNMENT has turned on us. You could watch it happen from a news desk. It was rather sudden actually. One day we were dealing with hard-pressed public servants doing their best in the impossible job of squaring public-policy circles. The next day we were facing mandarins (to use our friend Tom Huston’s characterization), expert at maximizing tax revenue and ducking accountability.

This new-model public official is pitted against what may be the last of the real journalists: Mike Marturello of KPC News, David Penticuff of the Marion Chronicle-Tribune and other outstate newsmen trying to find out what the heck is going on inside those quasi-governmental groups known as regional economic development corporations.

These groups are the rage in local government. Their mission statements claim the high-minded purpose of bringing jobs to Indiana’s small and mid-sized cities. Their structure, though, is similar to a political machine, commingling public and private monies with politically directed outcomes. And their approach to economics seems mercantilists, a 16th-century promise that wealth trickles down from the king or other central authority.

In any case, Marturello, editor of the Herald Republican in Angola, thought his readers would be interested in knowing how the eco-devo group in his region worked. He filed a complaint, and earlier this month an opinion by the Indiana’s Public Access Counselor was released that meetings of the Steuben County Economic Development Corp. (SCEDC) should be open to the public.

“Whether the SCEDC should follow Indiana’s access laws has been the subject of debate in Steuben County a number of years, triggered by a query from a member of the public,” Marturello said. “Now that the Public Access Counselor has ruled in favor of public meetings and records, we look forward to providing the SCEDC the same fair, robust coverage we provide the many governmental boards we report on.”

Why do you suppose these groups want their deliberations private in the first place? Could it be that the process of distributing tax revenue in a leveraged if not contrived manner cannot bear scrutiny? That the process, however intended, now has more to do with political power than economic development? Or, more sympathetically, is the work just so darn important that it cannot be slowed by bringing us dodderers up to speed?

Some pretty smart, business-savvy people want the answer to those questions. Jason Arp, a Fort Wayne councilman and financial expert, is skeptical of the regional economic-development concept. He is being urged to introduce a resolution there calling for open meetings. Penticuff, editor of the Chronicle-Tribune, has had success in that regard in Grant County.

“Economic development corporations are in the business of doling out taxpayer money to private business,” Councilman Arp said after the Steuben County ruling. “The public should be privy to the process and decision-making involved in these entities.”

We must hope that “privy” is being used here as an adjective and not as a noun.

— Craig Ladwig


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