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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Star Does Something Right

They Run Craig Ladwig's Column on Poor Media Coverage of IndyWorks

The Indianapolis Star published Ladwig's column critical of Star's coverage of the hearing on IndyWorks. You can read it in the Star here or you read the entire column below. Indiana Parley is able to publish the full column with the permission of its author.

There are implications in the column for the consideration of consolidated government in Allen County and Fort Wayne.

The Unbrokered Public Discussion of IndyWorks

by Craig Ladwig

The 50 or so senators, staff and onlookers in the state Senate Chambers last week for a hearing of the Marion County Consolidation Study Commission got a profound, albeit negative, lesson in why vigorous, inquiring media are so important to the democratic process.

The news that day was there was no news. The leads were not followed to the public records patiently assembled by the commission, records that would have shown how far the political debate had wandered from the verifiable.

The commission was charged with studying "IndyWorks," the proposal of Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson to consolidate local government. When the plan was unveiled, the mayor projected significant savings and efficiency. His numbers were accepted unquestioningly at the time. Indeed, some in media and business circulated the mayor’s graphics showing supposed property-tax benefits of consolidation.

The overall public impression was that the merits of consolidation were obvious to all but the uninformed. After all, who could be against a plan that saved money and lowered property taxes?

Fortunately, Sen. Mike Young, the commission chairman, insisted on asking a few questions. The commission’s accounting found that the city projections were more than just rosy, they bordered on malfeasant.

For the first 18 months of consolidation, the mayor would have been nearly $31 million off – enough to make the project marginal for all but the most exuberant Indy booster. And those graphics showing property-tax reductions . . . well, they weren’t built on any actual data (merely "illustrative," the mayor’s office later explained).

Please know that more than half of the mayor’s shortfall, which some believe would have required a surprise tax increase soon after consolidation, was not a matter of interpretation. Any citizen or reporter could access public records to determine who had the facts straight. Sen. Young, to no avail, had carefully noted where each record could be found.

The commission learned something else important at last week’s hearing. A team of academics commissioned by the Indiana Policy Review Foundation surveyed the most recent research on consolidation, much of it specific to Indianapolis. Their survey showed that the success of downtown Indianapolis was considered the result of an incremental rather than utopian approach to consolidation. Most interesting to the commission’s hearings, the experts agreed that the city already had consolidated those areas most likely to yield public benefit.

So it turns out that consolidation is not a no-brainer. Its potential benefits in economic development, government efficiency and accountability depend on the individual case. That is, success varies widely according to such factors as the service being consolidated, at what stage it is being consolidated and who is doing the consolidating.

But for Indianapolis and other cities looking to reform local government, the idea that consolidation is good for consolidation’s sake is not seriously questioned. Even the most careful reader of the news pages or viewer of the nightly news can wrongly assume that you make city government work better by just making it bigger.

This assumption is so strong that both the president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and the head of the city firefighters felt comfortable publishing a letter a few days before the commission hearing saying that no accounting of IndyWorks was necessary, that the success of Unigov was self-evident.

That such public conclusions are being drawn on critical issues without even generally accurate information should trouble us at many levels.

At the least, it should trouble us that the media does not devote adequate resources to cover the government beats. It is expensive, certainly, to train and keep experienced government reporters. It is those beats, however, that could prove critical for readers and viewers.

Our Indiana communities once were blessed with local media that invested staff and resources in an effort to ensure that their governments made sound judgments based on informed discussion, not on press releases and political promises. The shallowness of the IndyWorks discussion should convince editors to reinvest in just that.

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T. Craig Ladwig, editor of the Indiana Policy Review and a veteran of 38 years in newsrooms and on editorial pages, has worked for Capital Cities Communications and Knight-Ridder News as well as on staff at the U.S. Senate. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org.


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