Softening The Backbone

By Jim Sack

Ah, Weakening the Backbone

Years ago writer named Teddy White in his four Making of the President books chronicled presidential elections from Kennedy’s 1960 victory over Nixon to Tricky Dick’s ’72 win over McGovern. In one of those four books he listed the four most corrupt states in America: New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Indiana! My college-aged world was startled. Indiana? My home? The land of sycamores, Moonlight on the Wabash, hayrides, etc., corrupt? His explained that in Hoosierdom we simply do things that make politicians elsewhere blush because we think that’s just the way you do things.

In Allen County there are more than a few examples. When it comes to redrawing council district lines council trusts themselves to do the work. Last redistricting the two “drawers,” one Democrat and one Republican, announced they would make sure that councilmen Didier and Jehl, who live in close proximity, were not tossed into the same district. Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature made sure to get rid of Win Moses by pared away many Democrats from his district and replacing them thousands of Republican voters.

A decade ago when the then 4th, now the 3rd Congressional District was redrawn a concentration of Democrat around Monroeville were tossed into the overwhelmingly Republican district to the south and replaced by a concentration of Republican voters near Goshen. The competitive 4th District became a solidly Republican safe seat, as a result. In short, the voters don’t choose their candidates, the candidates choose their voters.

And, there is the case of our own Board of Zoning Appeals. At a recent hearing the president, one Mark GiaQuinta, accepted the decision of another member, Jim Hoch, an architect, to abstain from a vote on a matter brought to the BZA by one of Mr. Hoch’s clients. Bravo for Mr. Hoch. He clearly faced a conflict of interest. GiaQuinta, however, made it clear that another member of the BZA, Barney Niezer, one of Mayor Henry’s appointments, whose brother’s law firm was representing Mr. Hoch’s client that very same night at that very same podium, was free to vote without a hint, at least in Mr. GiaQuinta’s eyes, of impropriety. It seemed to we mere peasants no less a conflict of interest, but Mr. GiaQuinta had the gavel and the lawyerly rationale, so who would challenge him. That’s just they way they do things in Fort Wayne, eh Teddy?

Coziness between applicant and “decider” is undoubtedly played out on other local stages, and simply chalked up to the small town factor where everybody knows everybody with two degrees of separation.

Years ago, Councilman Mitch Harper, calculating his run for mayor and moving his pieces on the chessboard of politics, raised the “pay-for-play” issue charging that the many out-of-state contractors and engineering firms on the Mayor Henry’s contributor list were pouring money into the Henry Campaign not from love of our city, rather to buy that inside track to win a million dollar sewer job with a $10k contribution. It looked, at the least, unseemly and Mitch made it the centerpiece of his campaign. Apparently, voters didn’t care.

While many politicians serve for duty and honor, such as Mr. Hoch, while others simply, barer access for future considerations. By that, he meant granting the privilege of private meetings to discuss policy where candidate nods and smiles, sips a bourbon and accepts another fat campaign contribution a wink of reciprocity.

The financial report of the Republicans’ state senate leader, Brandt Herschman, is a case in point replete with scores of opaque political action committees sporting innocuous sounding names, such as the Committee for Better Government, or the Committee for Hoosier Values. Teddy would snicker.

The PACs seldom list human donors so who knows who the PAC really represents and what those generous donors want. To make it even more convoluted candidates accept money from a PAC then slice and dice it to divide among other opaque PACs or fellow candidates in what amounts to a money laundering do-se-do.

And recently, the Republican-dominated city council, normally an accusatory club of raised-eyebrow-protectors of the public purse, especially when assessing an Henry Administration initiative, helped themselves to plenty of new tax dollars with hardly the first question of motive or value-added utility. The Republican City Clerk got a handsome budget increase, the Republican council attorney got oodles, staff to council got oodles, and only one councilman, Geoff Paddock, suggested the additional few hundred of thousands of dollars was just a wee bit hypocritical, especially in light of council’s repeated charge that the administration had presented an unbalanced budget.

Council, you may also remember, gave a fat tax break, your dime, to the rich men, campaign contributors, who own One Summit Square so that they might renovate…to change the curtains and carpet…in order to help other rich men at SIRVA move downtown. One councilman, when questioned about the seemingly chummy deal said, “we do that all the time.” Ah, the smell of free money and good bourbon.

Conversely, one of the reasons the Riverfront project is going swimmingly along is Mayor Tom has chosen Parks Director Al Moll to lead the effort, and Al has chosen former deputy mayor Mark Becker to walk point. Two more honest and capable community servants you will hardly find anywhere. In general, the people who work in the nether regions of our city government are among the best of people who love this community and each day stoically contribute their bit to our progress.

The same is usually true of our city council. More frequently, a councilman will abstain because a client or a segment of an industry is just a tad too close to maintain the mantel of political piety. But, occasionally the forest and the trees blur. After a spring council meeting, after voting on a highly contentious zoning matter one councilman was roasted publicly for casting the deciding vote favoring a company where one his closest friends worked, a company the councilman had just lauded on his Facebook page. Again, Fort Wayne is a small town where conflicts of interest are inherent, family and school ties abound making it even more important for officials to abstain when a buddy, a contributor, or brother stands to gain from a vote.

Too much of our political corruption comes from the sort of thoughtlessness that would make Teddy White smile; we’re not corrupt, it’s just the way we do things in Indiana.

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