By BILL BROOKS
The ideas for governance were thick in the air on the evening of Sept. 19 when the three candidates seeking to be the city’s next mayor gathered in the Indiana Landmarks Center.
Doug McNaughton, the dark-horse Libertarian candidate, wants to “introduce new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.” And the consultant who said his job takes him to cities all over the world, giving him best-practices exposure, had no shortage of thoughts on how he would steer Indianapolis.
The more conventional challenger, Republican State Sen. Jim Merritt, evoked the spirits of former mayors Richard Lugar, Bill Hudnut and Greg Ballard as he repeatedly stressed the need for stronger policing.
And the incumbent, Mayor Joe Hogsett, touted his administration’s efforts – with the bipartisan support from the City-County Council – to straighten out the city’s finances and approve balanced budgets and a $400 million infrastructure improvement plan.
Indianapolis voters will be asked to choose among the three men at the general election scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 5.
The three candidates met in what was a largely collegial atmosphere, the mayoral forum sponsored by Historic Urban Neighborhoods of Indianapolis and Indiana Landmarks to give special focus to neighborhood issues. After the candidates gave 15-minute opening remarks, the second half of the evening was devoted to questions from the audience – members of which came through with wide-ranging queries. The neighbors brought forth questions on such issues as air pollution, food insecurity, the root causes of crime, homelessness, digital billboards, immigration enforcement, the unequal attention to predominantly black neighborhoods, and the issue of gentrification.
The issue of potholes arose, as everyone expected it would, with Merritt using that opportunity to take one of the few shots of the evening as he said that under Mayor Ballard each winter’s potholes had been repaired by the following mid-summer.
One question focused on the problem of abandoned or neglected properties and their negative impact they have on neighborhoods – including sparking crime.
McNaughton said while Libertarians normally balk at the idea of eminent domain, urban blight is one area where such a tactic is essential. Merritt said the city needs to be innovative and find different ways to make such properties livable. “A neighborhood has to be safe,” he said, once again returning to his theme of better policing.
Hogsett said the city has to date “used every tool in our toolbox,” while acknowledging that because many of the properties involve out-of-stand owners the process has been slow. He said blighted houses have been demolished, unless they could be rehabbed, but also alluded to the need for the Indiana General Assembly to enact laws which make it easier for cities to confront the problem.
Each candidate had interesting observations on the issue of food insecurity. Hogsett said the idea of introducing grocery stores into “food deserts” was not as easy as it sounds, given the current economy and problems of brick-and-mortar retailers. “Twenty-five century problems need 21st century solutions,” he said.
Merritt said among many answers is the idea of food rescue gardens, while McNaughton said one major supermarket chain which operates in Indianapolis has a mobile food truck service operating in Louisville, suggesting such a service could be launched here.
On the issue of gentrification – when long-standing residents are forced out of their neighborhoods when those neighborhoods are improved – Hogsett said the city has required developers to establish affordable or below-market-rate units as part of their projects.
Merritt said the issue of gentrification is “the hardest part of governing Indianapolis,” agreeing with Hogsett said set-aside rules are appropriate. “We have to keep the flavor. It’s a balancing act.”
One subject which received much attention was the idea of how the city’s acknowledged economic prosperity could be shared by all segments of the population.
Hogsett said the city has recently partnered with the Indy Chamber and other organizations to adopt an Inclusive Growth Strategy, with more focus on the quality of jobs produced instead of quantity of jobs. He said the city is using incentives to job creators who pay wages of at least $18 an hour, while also addressing child care and transit issues. Hogsett added that despite the city’s successes, “too many people have been left behind.”
Merritt said he has spent many hours in neighborhoods where people feel they have been forgotten, and has a strategy to include those neighborhoods in the city’s progress. “They feel forgotten; they want to be at the table.”
The Sept. 19 event was the result of work by Historic Urban Neighborhoods leaders including President Garry Chilluffo, President-elect Glenn Blackwood, and past-Presidents Marjorie Kienle and Lorraine Vavul. Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis also shared the dais for the evening.
In outlining rules for questions from the audience, Blackwood said neighbors should refrain from stating their own opinions, focusing instead on asking clear and concise questions in order to maximize the time for responses. With a couple of exceptions, that edict was largely followed.