Reaction mixed to City-County government changes

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A new state law changes the way Indianapolis city government operates and it passed without any input from Marion County voters. Those changes cover everything from who serves on the council to who oversees the budgets of county office holders.

Republicans say the changes improve government efficiency. Democrats call it a "power grab."

One change voters will notice involves the makeup of the City-County Council. Currently there are 25 members representing districts and four at-large members, all Democrats. After 2015, those at-large seats go by the wayside.

At-large Councilor Zach Adamson said, "They're not taking those seats away from us, they're taking them away from the public."

The first-term councilor said at-large councilors serve a vital role.

"As an at-large councilor, you have to appeal to a broad base of people, so your position on things is less political and more neutral and independent," he said.

Adamson pointed out that all other major cities in Indiana have at-large councilors, yet the new law affects just Marion County.

"There's no rationality behind it other than it's politically motivated," he said.

If the at-large seats were eliminated immediately, Republicans would hold a three-seat majority and control the council.

Joel Miller, chair of the Marion County Democratic Party, "A power grab by the Republican party at a moment of desperation in the end of their time as an important power in Marion County."

The county has been trending Democratic for the last several years. With the exception of Republican Mayor Greg Ballard, all countywide office holders are Democrats.

Mayoral spokesman Marc Lotter called the allegations of a power grab, "political noise from political noisemakers."

He noted that 20 years ago when Republicans had strong control of the council, it was Democrats who pushed to get rid of the at-large seats.

Lotter said while Ballard "did not weigh in" or seek elimination of the at-large seats, he did seek several other reforms from the Republican-controlled legislature.

"The mayor has been talking about protecting taxpayers, promoting economic development and strengthening public safety. These are common sense reforms he supports and he wants them to apply to the current mayor and future mayors regardless of political party," Lotter said.

Among the measures the mayor supports? Giving his controller more authority over the budgets of the sheriff, treasurer, prosecutor and other county office holders.

"We're looking for protecting taxpayers from out-of-control government spending," he said.

Eyewitness News asked for Sheriff John Layton's response and received this.

"It's very sad that amid rising crime rates, and the mayor's city itself looking at a deficit upwards of $100 million, the focus of this mayor is how much power he can wrangle from the City-County Council and the Constitutional office holders of Marion County. We need to turn the tide on senseless violence. We need to come together and not play politics. The safety of the public demands it," said Sheriff John Layton.

John Krause with the Indiana University Public Policy Institute suggested more oversight "is needed."

Krause, a deputy mayor under former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, noted that property tax caps have had a significant impact on local government. There's less revenue to be divvied up among the 40-plus taxing units.

He said the county needed a "chief financial officer" so that those taxing units "have their fair share...this is just merely one attempt to have some coordination of the finances with all the taxing units of Marion County."

Asked about the elimination of the at-large seats, Krause said, "There's a political question here. No one wants to give up political office. That was one of the issues raised with the Kernan-Shepard report on local government reform. (It was) proposed and not successful."

Several neighborhood leaders, however, have strongly opposed the changes to Marion County government.

Pat Andrews of the Decatur Township Civic Council said, "My first concern? No one got the chance for any input, especially after it was introduced."

Andrews fears the changes give the mayor too much pull over too many things.

"We need to have separated government," she said.

She and others though are especially upset over changes to the Metropolitan Development Commission (MDC.) The mayor now gets to appoint five of the nine members, up from four. The MDC votes on all sorts of zoning and development issues, which neighborhood groups often weigh in on.

"The Metropolitan Development Commission composition is going to cause more things to flow faster for the mayor, like the crazy cricket stadium he managed to push through because he has a majority on the Public Works get a majority on the MDC is actually pretty scary," Andrews said.

Lotter said having a majority of appointments to the MDC was important to the future of the city.

"We're talking about setting a strong economic development course for the city and not holding up projects with political gamesmanship," he said.

But Ruth Hayes, president of the Nora Northside Community Council called the changes "very bad," saying the legislation "has been one of if not the most upsetting move by my own party."

Hayes said in signing the bill, "Gov. Pence allowed political thuggery to stand...I had hoped he'd have more backbone."

Representing the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhoods, Cathy Burton sent a letter to Speaker Brian Bosma asking legislators to hold off on a vote.

In that letter, Burton wrote "Senate Bill 621 has far reaching implications to governance in Marion County and should not be advanced any further in the legislative process without extensive opportunities for community review and input. This bill appears to significantly alter and reorganize the structure of decision making in our city-county government. Further, it reduces opportunities for public engagement that ensure transparent and carefully considered representation of the Citizens of Marion County."

Some have talked about challenging aspects of the new law in court. For now, though, it's a go in Marion County.