Council hands mayor big losses on justice center, electric cars

Mayor Greg Ballard

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard was handed two big losses this week. Monday night, the Democratic-controlled City-County Council essentially killed plans to build a criminal justice center at the site of the old GM stamping plant just west of downtown.

Then the council voted overwhelmingly to sue the city over the mayor's $32 million electric car deal with California-based Vision Fleet. Aaron Freeman was among the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats

Freeman said it was "an easy vote...this is just wrong. It's wrong how we entered it. The contract is wrong. It violates city ordinance and state code and it doesn't work for us."

Freeman began asking questions about the program - first about the plug-in vehicles assigned to IMPD and then about multiple versions of the same contract which were backdated. Then last week, the Marion County Auditor questioned the mayor's office moving nearly $200,000 from the city's storm water fund to help pay for the electric cars.

"To me, this is about process and we did not follow the correct process," Freeman said.

Tuesday, Ballard told Eyewitness News, "clearly there were a couple of mistakes made, sloppy legal work."

But he insisted the deal was above board and remains valid. As for his Republican detractors?

"People had various reasons for that. I think it's the election cycle," he said. "We were very open about this when we announced this in 2012. The council funded it the last two years, they knew exactly what was going on. The contract was out there almost a year...and now a few months away from the election, and we're entering into the political season."

Political columnist Brian Howey said, "I think the council is being prudent in taking a good hard look at things and making sure they don't get sideways with the State Board of Accounts."

But Howey also pointed to the mayor's lame duck status. He's not running for a third term.

"To me, it's the classic situation where the council knows the mayor's not around much longer," he said.

And Howey said that makes it easier for members of the mayor's own party to challenge him and not just on the car deal.

In April, Republicans joined Democrats in voting 28-1 to override the mayor's veto of $4.7 million for public safety improvements. It was the first time in more than 30 years that any council had overridden a mayoral veto.

Asked whether relations with Republican councilors were strained, the mayor replied, "maybe with one or two, but not really. We talk routinely. It's, as most people understand, the political season."

Freeman echoed that.

"I'm a proud Republican. I support the mayor," he said. "I don't think we have to agree on every issue."

As for the justice center, Ballard said the vote "was not unexpected...we were hoping we could pull off a couple more councilors, but we couldn't get it done."

He said it was unlikely now to move forward on his watch.

"It's on the council now and has been for a long time. We'll see what they do, even if they do it in a couple of years when I'm gone, it would still probably be the best thing for the city as long as they did it the right way," he said.

While Howey doesn't think the failure of the justice center or the lawsuit will define the mayor's legacy, he said, "After this week, this month, I'm not sure there's going to be much gas or power get any other major issues thru at this point."

In the coming months, the mayor's office and council will be consumed with the budget process, which won't be any easier this time around.