It was a bittersweet day to explore “Unigov at 50” at the Sixth Annual Richard M. Fairbanks Symposium on Civic Leadership.
Wednesday’s long-planned event happened to fall on the same day as the funeral for U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, who as mayor was the architect of unified city-county government in Indianapolis.
Part of that history was laid out in a short documentary that opened the symposium, which is hosted annually by UIndy’s Institute for Civic Leadership & Mayoral Archives, in partnership with Indiana Humanities. It is made possible through the generous support of the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.
“In my dreams about Indianapolis becoming a great city, something of significance, a lot of this was realized very rapidly by the fact that we adopted (Unigov),” Lugar says in one film clip, noting that merged government allowed the city to build Market Square Arena as a home for the Indiana Pacers. “We emerged as someplace (where) people really wanted to come.”
Through panel discussions with former and current city leaders, we learned how Unigov brought the city great economic benefits, but how it wasn’t perfect, and that there’s more work to be done, especially in terms of equity and inclusion.
Here are five things we learned about Unigov at this year’s symposium:
- A primary impetus was economic development. Consolidating city-county government vastly expanded the Indianapolis tax base into the townships, improved its bond rating and allowed city leaders to think big, eventually doing things such as building a football arena and luring the Colts from Baltimore. But the city ultimately broadened its economic development focus beyond sports. “Indianapolis moved from basketball to biotech,” noted Bruce Katz, one of the nation’s leading experts on localism and metropolitan government and co-founder of New Localism Advisers. (Read Katz’s reflections on the symposium on his website.)
- Not everyone benefitted from the new structure. Looking back after 50 years, one of the biggest challenges to Unigov is that minority communities didn’t benefit equally from the economic growth. Panelists noted that many African American businesses and neighborhoods were displaced or eliminated to make way for new development and added that Indianapolis Public Schools was hurt by not being part of the consolidation conversation. Doran Moreland, executive director for statewide diversity and community engagement at Ivy Tech Community College, said the political power of people of color was diluted as the city’s boundaries were expanded to the predominantly white townships. Creating equity for those who didn’t benefit from Unigov’s economic rise is becoming an increasing focus for the city and that is stirring hope, some panelists said. Among the initiatives mentioned were Mayor Joe Hogsett’s Indy Achieves, which works to help Marion County residents get degrees and credentials beyond high school, and other efforts to train workers in the city for the bioscience and tech jobs that are coming online.
- Some say we need Unigov 3.0. While many parts of city-county government were consolidated in 1970, some parts were not. Former Mayor Bart Peterson took consolidation a few steps further in the 2000s by merging the city and county police departments. He said he believes the next steps should be complete consolidation of the fire departments and elimination of township government. But he said he wouldn’t attempt to merge the city’s school districts because it would be “political suicide” and because bigger is not always better.
- Change is hard. Part of the reason Indianapolis was able to adopt Unigov is that the enabling legislation was approved by the Indiana General Assembly and didn’t have to face the scrutiny of county voters in a referendum. That allowed the proposal to bypass some of the political pressures that this month blocked an effort to consolidate city and county government in St. Louis, said Dave Leipholtz, director of community studies at Better Together St. Louis, an advocate for unified government. Consolidated government in St. Louis would require voter approval. Indianapolis also had other ingredients for success, including bold leadership from Lugar, former Lt. Gov. John Mutz and others.
- Change also can be inspiring. Ned Lamkin, a former Indiana lawmaker who led the charge for Unigov in the state legislature, gave an inspiring speech in 1969 to push for the change. Ted Frantz, who organized the symposium as director of UIndy’s Institute for Civic Leadership & Mayoral Archives, read a portion of that speech and it made for a rousing end to the event. In the speech, Lamkin called out what he described as misinformed opponents and declared that with Unigov: “Either you will now learn to live together with your neighbors in this community and learn to bear your fair share of the burden in meeting its problems, or you will have to move elsewhere, where your prejudices, your pocketbooks and your consciences can again be protected from the responsibilities required by the realities of our day.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Unigov, check out UIndy’s online exhibit. And, if you would like to learn more about Indiana Humanities’ INseparable initiative, which over the next two years will explore how Hoosiers relate to each other across boundaries—especially urban, suburban and rural lines—visit www.IndianaHumanities.org/INseparable.