Civil Discourse Now

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Sunday Star's editorial by Tim Swarens: did he write of a fictional Mayor Ballard and a City with decent streets?

   In the early 1960s, Indianapolis had more than one daily newspaper. Writers from the Indianapolis Times won a few Pulitzers before the paper shut down in 1965. The Indianapolis Star was a decent paper, although very conservative for my tastes. Still, the reporters covered local stories well, and tried to act as a check on local corruption and local politicians. The sports section was pretty good, too.  On Sundays that section was thick with good coverage of major sports and, each May, the Indianapolis 500. The starting grid was printed on a full page with drivers’ qualification times next to each driver’s photograph.
   Last Sunday I picked up the Sunday paper. Gone are the days of the really decent coverage. The sports section is anemic. Parts of the paper are provided by McNews—excuse me, USA Today. This makes some kind of sense, since the Star is owned by the Gannett Company, a company that also owns USA Today.
   I flipped through national and international news items, and arrived at the editorial pages, just as my breakfast arrived at our table. I was somewhat upset by the main, two-column editorial, titled “Republicans’ accusation signals fear,” written by opinion editor Tim Swarens.
   The main point of the editorial was Marion County’s Republican Party appears to have made a mistake by raising an argument that former United States Attorney, and now (it appears) candidate for Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett violated the Hatch Act (“a federal crime with only the weakest of evidence to support the accusation”). Mr. Swarens expressed his opinion that “getting in the first blow” in regard to “resorting to cheap, largely unsubstantiated allegations” is not “a smart tactic when it makes Republicans themselves, and by extension [Mayor Greg] Ballard, look bad.”
   Why would this be so? Because, as Mr. Swarens writes earlier in the column:
   “Listen, I like Ballard as mayor. He can be frustratingly thin-skinned, stubborn and tone deaf at times, but he’s also been a far more visionary and productive leader than even his closest allies anticipated when he was first elected.
   “Indy is, in many ways, a better city because Ballard has been mayor since 2008. Despite enduring a deep national recession and severe fiscal restraints, the city has polished its Downtown, become a stronger magnet for young professionals, invested in a big way in long neglected streets and sidewalks, emerged as an education reform leader, and raised its national and international profile.
   “Ballard has driven much of that progress.”
   Mr. Swarens was writing about Indianapolis, Indiana—not Indianapolis, Mississippi (there is an Indianapolis, Mississippi). He was writing about this city’s Mayor Ballard.
   First, it is difficult to disagree with Mr. Swarens’s assessment that Mayor Ballard is thin-skinned. If one watches interviews of the mayor on YouTube, Mayor Ballard gets impatient and angry when anything but a soft question goes his direction. “Stubborn” and “tone deaf” do not adequately describe a mayor who takes off on projects without a clue as to the needs or desires of constituents, such as the project to bring cricket to Indianapolis. By jove that was a sticky wicket!
   Second, I had to wonder to whom Mr. Swarens referred when he spoke of Mayor Ballard’s “closest allies” at the time of the Mayor’s first election? Were those the folks who believed candidate Ballard when the candidate promised to stem the tide of reckless spending in Indianapolis and have more transparency in government? Or were those the “closest allies” who joined the coterie of supporters of Ballard, Mayor, the day after that fateful night in November, 2007? Amongst the latter group would be people who have benefitted from no-bid contracts and municipal largesse.
   Third, Downtown might have gotten “polished,” but who wrote the checks? Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district is funding much of the construction. Then, there are the properties Ballard-Mayor has given to private developers, who then have developed properties with tax or TIF monies. In other words, we have given freebies to the Mayor’s pals. The bill will come due down the road. The parking meter contract is/was/will be a fiasco—for 50 years.
   Fourth—of what streets and sidewalks does Mr. Swarens write? There are a lot of streets, especially those that go east-west that resemble areas of war zones struck by mortars.
   Fifth, how has Indianapolis “emerged as an education reform leader”? Funds for Indianapolis Public Schools are sucked out to benefit magnet schools and voucher programs.
   Finally, our “national and international profile” has been raised? Maybe Indianapolis put on a good “show” for the 2012 Super Bowl®. Unfortunately, we never have been given a clear statement as to how much money the City lost on that extravaganza.
   In 2011, some of us thought Mayor Ballard’s re-election was impossible. Democrats seemed to pull back from direct attacks—on Mayor Ballard’s record. They took a pass, however. Maybe—saying just maybe—the same forces that have “polished” Downtown play both sides of the fence in politics in this city. Three years later, several potential rivals are on the field of battle. Mayor Ballard appears to be staging a fire sale of City assets. One only can hope this “visionary” Ballard will choose not to run.
   Then one realizes the breaks Gannett got when its Indianapolis subsidiary was allowed to move into the space once occupied by Nordstrom’s at Circle Centre.
   The Pulliam heirs could not sell The Indianapolis Star. Pulliams past had created a trust that would hold The Star so, one may infer, the newspaper always would be in the family. However, an enterprising person or persons realized a loophole, of sorts. If all of the beneficiaries of a trust agree, a trust can be dissolved. The Indianapolis Star was sold to Gannett right before the internet rendered daily newspapers—except those daily newspapers located in retirement communities—relics. A nice chunk of change (one might think hundreds of millions or maybe a billion dollars) or so purchased an asset that, overnight, was worth far less.  
   One way or another, Gannett realized an advantage in its move to Circle Centre. Other bloggers have questioned the ethics of Gannett covering local political matters while benefitting from the largesse of local politicians.
   However, Sunday’s column by Mr. Swarens is a piquant bit of prose in which the scent of corruption wafted across the breakfast table. As a work of editorial writing it distressed. As a work of fiction, it might have had some promise.

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