Guest Post from Taylor Firestine: UIndy Richard M. Fairbanks Symposium on Civic Leadership: Unigov at 50,

Editors note: This guest post was provided to Urban Indy from an employee of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization. We will also welcome any comments or rebuttals that readers might contribute.

Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the sixth annual Richard M. Fairbanks Symposium on Civic Leadership at UIndy. The event included three panel discussions regarding the 50th anniversary of Unigov. I wanted to share some of the major themes and takeaways with everyone. The symposium was especially timely, given Sen. Richard Lugar’s death.

The event opened with a short documentary (also embedded below), outlining the background of Unigov’s creation and impacts.

Unigov: A Citizen’s Guide to Consolidation in Indianapolis.

  • Scott Chinn, Partner at Faegre Baker Daniels and City of Indianapolis Corporate Counsel (2000—2005)
  • Bart Peterson, CEO, Christel House and 47th Mayor of Indianapolis (2000—2008)
  • Ted Frantz, Director, Institute for Civic Leadership & Mayoral Archives and Professor of History, University of Indianapolis (Moderator)

The discussion started by acknowledging Unigov for being Indianapolis’ “game-changing” moment. Bart Peterson was the first Democrat mayor elected in the post-Unigov era. Peterson mentioned that he was elected by and large on maintaining the trajectory set by Unigov (his policies were not “revolutionary, but evolutionary”). Major issues of his time in office included what he coined “Unigov 2.0,” which entailed consolidating the township fire departments in Marion County with the City, consolidating the Sherriff’s Office with IMPD, and joining the City and County budgets into one. There was discussion on what a hypothetical “Unigov 3.0” would look like. Mayor Peterson said completion of the fire department consolidation and dissolution of township governments in Marion County would be on his agenda. He was careful to say he would “not touch the schools” (which would come back in the second session).

Scott Chinn talked about recurring stumbling blocks the City has faced from the General Assembly. He said an ideal “Unigov 3.0” would include some kind of home rule designation, allowing the City-County to dictate its own finances instead of being supplicant to the legislature. Peterson got some laughs by saying it’s a “dirty little secret” that the Statehouse is generally supportive of Indy.

Mayor Peterson made an important note about regionalism. He said more attention needs paid to the metropolitan region as a whole. He mentioned Minneapolis as a good case study in regional tax sharing and drew applause when he mentioned current inequities—namely commuters living outside of Marion County using Indy infrastructure but not paying for it. “We need to grapple with equitable distribution of financial burdens on a regional scale.”

Legacies of Unigov Then and Now: Race and Economics.

  • Doran Moreland, Executive Director, Statewide Diversity & Community Engagement, Ivy Tech
  • John Mutz, former Lieutenant Governor of Indiana and President of Lilly Endowment
  • Joyce Q. Rogers, Esq., VP for Development and External Relations for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, Indiana University Foundation
  • Angela Smith Jones, Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, City of Indianapolis
  • Amber Denney, Director of Strategic Communcation, IUPUI (Moderator)

Former Lt. Governor Mutz, who was among the “architects” of Unigov, began by discussing its perspective as a tool for economic development. One of the central goals was establishing a public research university in the city. Other efforts devised by the City Committee, included developing and investing in the arts, amateur sports, life sciences, and higher education strategies. He said the overall goal was to “awaken the city to opportunities.”

Fast-forwarding to the state of the City-County in 2019, Angela Smith Jones said we have struggled to figure out how to “right the ship” from the damage done to IPS post-Unigov. IPS has continued hemorrhaging students since Unigov’s creation, to the benefit of the township school districts, which has entrenched poverty in the center city and limited resources to young people. Mutz said that it was regretful what happened to IPS, but basically, it just wasn’t going to be politically feasible for consolidation if the township school districts were unified as one. You can read between the lines on why that was in 1969-1970. A participant in the audience seized on this and pointed out the hypocrisy of a public research university being an impetus for Unigov, but then deciding to be hands-off on K-12 public schools due to politics.

Angela Smith Jones hinted at TOD being an economic development tool to help rebuild Center Township’s tax base: “Building density in the old city limits.” An audience member brought up transportation and food access being a major problem due to the consolidated City-County’s immense land area and sprawling development patterns. She mentioned this was a problem of inclusive growth that is currently hurting minority, elderly, and other vulnerable populations. Mutz mentioned the Red Line as the start to possibly solving this issue, but cautioned that he didn’t know if it was truly the best option (believing that we’re behind the technology curve, e.g. AVs). Moreland mentioned that African American political power was diluted following Unigov, empowering the predominantly white townships.

The Enduring Charm of Consolidation: St. Louis and its 21st Century Dreams.

  • Bruce Katz, author and cofounder of New Localism Advisers
  • Dave Leipholtz, Director of Community Studies at Better Together St. Louis

This panel talked mostly about St. Louis’ efforts for city-county consolidation and how Indianapolis, Nashville, and Louisville have been case studies Better Together has researched since 2014. Major problems St. Louis is dealing with is shrinking population and tax revenue; fragmentation of municipalities (there are some 80+ municipalities in St. Louis County ALONE—astounding), all with their own courts, police, fire, schools, etc.; and criminal justice issues. Ferguson was used as an example of what happens when one place’s resources are siphoned off by wealth moving to outer ring suburbs.

Katz’s book, The New Localism, has a chapter discussing Indianapolis and the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership as a national best practice in cultivating a regional private sector approach to address economic development issues. Unlike Unigov, which was enabled by state statute without a vote, St. Louis city-county consolidation requires a referendum vote.

At the conclusion, Ted Frantz, Director of the Institute for Civic Leadership & Mayoral Archives, read testimony first presented in the General Assembly in 1969 by former Indiana lawmaker Ned Lampkin. Lapkin was a proponent of Unigov. “Either you will now learn to live together with your neighbors in this community and learn to bear your fair share of the burden in meeting its problems, or you will have to move elsewhere, where your prejudices, your pocketbooks and your consciences can again be protected from the responsibilities required by the realities of our day.”

There’s a lot here, so that’s all I’ll share for now (probably way more than you wanted to know). Let me know if you have any specific questions or comments! It was a lot of fun and allowed me to nerd out with like-minded citizens.


Comments 3

  • Excellent summation of the UIndy symposium. My only observation is that Indianapolis media failed in their journalistic mission by ignoring this event. A quick Google search indicated zero coverage by any media – print, radio, or television, Shame on them. We cannot expect an engaged citizenry if we do not have an informed citizenry. The result is either apathy or ignorance, each of which constitutes a serious challenge to making the best public policy choices on behalf of…the citizenry.

    • That’s crazy. I saw some references to it on the day that it happened via twitter. So, I guess I can chalk up a small victory to my twitter feed here.

    • What do you expect, when local news sources are shrinking their journalist headcount and filling space with more newswire/click bait type article? People refuse to pay for their news, this is what you get.

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