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Run the city for $15,000/year! (Bring your own desk and staff.)


(March 31, 2016) — Last week, I spent a few days in Indianapolis talking to their city council members and constituents. I was there as the keynote speaker for Butler University’s traditional Peace Week to talk about citizen activism.

welcome-to-indianapolisIndianapolis is the archetype city for those who want to shrink government. They have a combined city/county government that spreads out over 300 square miles with a population of 850,000. They elect their mayor and 25 council members from districts.

Each council member is paid $15,000 a year. They are given a mail slot and a drawer in a filing cabinet, no office and no desk. They have no personal office staff to handle constituent services, or review the various department budgets, or investigate questionable city practices or search for best practices in other cities that could be adopted in Indianapolis. However, they do have central staff that serves all of the council members; there are six of them.

Who could afford this job? Three types of people could: the wealthy, the financially secure retired, and folks whose non-profit organizations or businesses can subsidize their pay.

There is no restriction from being employed by an organization that has a business relationship with the city government. While they should recuse themselves from votes where there is a conflict of interest, they can debate the issue, work on the issue, and educate the public about it.

After meeting with city council members from across the nation, I’ve come to realize that Indianapolis is not unique. Many large cities, say those about 100,000 or more, have similar arrangements; working to represent the public’s interest but not given the time or staff to do it properly. The result: poor services. No wonder that those on the receiving end complain about government not being accountable, because often it isn’t. However, those interests that benefit from little or no constraints on how they conduct business are fine with shrinking government, particularly if it might be influenced by a large swath of the public.

This arrangement belies the theory that the least government is the best. When you take that approach in a democracy, you are reducing the public’s control over their social, political, and physical environment to protect their rights and economic interests.

Their elected representatives are literally stripped of the resources they need to do their job. They are reduced to either being overworked in trying to perform duties that should accompany a responsible government or they are resigned to turning over those duties to third-party contractors, i.e. businesses, that are not directly accountable to the public but instead to the owners or shareholders of that business.

indy-parking-meterFor example, by a one-vote margin the Indianapolis council supported their mayor in selling off their parking meter revenue stream for a 50-year period to a private company. Shortly afterward, a constituent told me as he was paying a parking meter that the company increased the metered times from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in many sections of their downtown, without any public restraint. According to a council member, one of those voting to privatize the meters actually had a business relationship with the company receiving the contract.

I believe that public officials should be well paid because you want citizens to run for office without sacrificing their employment careers. Elected officials should obviously be provided with a place to work and have sufficient staff. If all of these elements are missing, you have shallow democracy. In practice that approach shrinks our representative democracy and replaces it with a government that depends on private interests to get the job done.

While in Indianapolis, the Indiana State Legislature provided a clear example of this approach when they passed legislation outlawing cities from taxing or banning plastic bags, even though their local governments had voted to do so. The logic was that the market would find a solution. But without the public regulating private industry, where is their incentive to make any changes?

Free-market solutions often are not free to the public. The result is that the public picks up the cost of doing business by the private sector. In the case of using plastic bags, taxpayers have to pay for more sewage treatment plants and waste disposal pits due to the proliferation of giving away free plastic bags.

This is the formula preached by those who do not want “government,” i.e. democracy, to interfere with their liberty and freedom, which they believe would be better provided by a free market to meet public needs. Ultimately, it comes down to a question of what practices make for the most efficient and accountable democratic government.

licata-nickNick Licata was elected to five terms on the Seattle City Council before leaving office at the end of 2015 to pursue helping citizens influence government policies. His new book, Becoming A Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies and Advice on How to Change Our World, recaps his and others strategies and how they can be applied to current issues.

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