The Outstater: City Halls Have Fallen Down the Rabbit Hole
by Craig Ladwig
Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”
Alice: “What’s the answer?”
Mad Hatter: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
ONLY FOOLS AND THE CORRUPT say democracy in itself will save us. Like a bad riddle, the question of why today’s political representation, even at the most local level, is unresponsive to the average citizen bedevils the political discussion.
It is discouraging that the question has to be asked at all. It is more discouraging that it defies a convincing answer. Why else should local government exist but to respond to citizen needs?
Well, sadly, a casual reading of any Indiana council agenda will show plenty of reasons — seemingly popular ones. Indeed, typical is an indiscriminate collection of special interests, feel-good subsidies and Potemkin edifices all sprinkled with the dreamy rationales of economic development and social justice.
But every once in a while, wouldn’t chance if not logic result in a government doing nothing, removing itself from our lives, paying off some debt, eliminating an outdated department?
That never happens.
This spring, Dr. Berry Keating and Dr. Maryann O. Keating took a crack at framing the question for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Using a variety of measurements, they compared the sense of well-being of various Indiana cities, concluding that the cities that do best are those whose governments are focused on simply addressing the basic needs of current residents.
“Although development is easily thwarted by bad policy, those who believe that planners and development agencies are capable of directing local economies are deceived,” they concluded.
More recently, the foundation took a close look at a typical mayor’s campaign finance filings comparing them with the city’s check register. Linear regression analysis conducted by Jason Arp, a city councilman and financial expert, yielded an r-square value (a measure of correlation) of 90 percent for attorneys and 59 percent for civil engineers.
“One can interpret that to mean there is a statistically high probability that the more a firm contributes to the campaign fund the more it can expect in city contract dollars,” he concluded, noting that no more than one-third of the mayor’s campaign chest came from average citizens.
Bingo, local governments are unresponsive to the average citizen’s needs because they have precious little to do with the average citizen — the answer to our question.
Or not. The president of the local redevelopment commission dismissed the linear regression analysis as nonsense. “Mr. Arp would have us believe that companies making campaign contributions are receiving special treatment and buying influence in the city’s bidding and contracting activities,” he said (nonsensically, to some minds).
A spokesman for the mayor’s office turned his back on the matter entirely, saying that the administration had consulted the public and found that citizens were most interested in neighborhood infrastructure improvements and investments in the parks system “not criticisms about how city contracts are awarded.”
The mayor himself paused in his daily routine to tell a camera crew that any such criticism of his administration was “inappropriate” and “unprofessional.”
And that was that — or to paraphrase the Cheshire cat, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there”
Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.