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Thursday, February 9, 2023

Council stands up to mayor, justice center deal flops

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Late Monday afternoon, an African-American City-County Councilor called me all aflutter. Seems he’d just gotten off the phone with Mayor Greg Ballard. (Never once had the mayor called this Council member about anything.) “What did he want?” I asked.

“He wanted me to vote for the justice center,” the surprised Councilor replied. “Why after all this time did the mayor want to talk with me?” the councilor wondered aloud.

“Simple,” I said. “Ballard doesn’t have the votes to bring the justice center proposal to the Council tonight. If he did, he wouldn’t need to call you.”

That phone call, in my view, signals that the active mayoralty of Ballard is ending. Yes, he’ll still be mayor for eight more months. But last Monday, Ballard officially became a lame duck, as the City-County Council stood on its feet and took unprecedented action.

The Council overrode the mayor’s veto of that $4.7 million for necessary equipment for Indy’s police. All but one Republican Councilor voted with all 15 Democrats to override Ballard’s veto 28 to 1! I believe it was the first Council override of an Indianapolis mayor since the creation of Unigov in 1970!

Now, couple that stunner with the humiliation of Ballard not having the votes to move his controversial justice center proposal to the Council floor for final approval.

In the days leading up to this past Monday, lobbyists for the justice center and the proposal’s developer Meridiam, were overturning every rock to try and convince 15 Council members to vote to bring the mayor’s Justice Center plan to the floor and force a vote to approve it.

They, along with labor unions who’d build the project, were calling in favors, pleading, threatening, cajoling Councilors, mostly Democrats, but a few Republicans to stand with the mayor and OK the deal.

But the major problem with the justice center is exemplified by the mayor’s Hail Mary phone call to that Councilor he never deigned to speak with before.

The problem with the whole fiasco was the administration’s arrogance, which crafted a flawed plan from jump.

The Request For Proposal process was secret; plus projections of costs and savings never added up.

Ask city officials and mayoral minions simple questions about the justice center and you’d be met with scorn and condescension. The City’s attitude? “We know what’s good for you so sit in the corner and shut up.”

The administration’s decision to exclude the county’s Building Authority from bidding on the project was absurd.

When former Mayor Steve Goldsmith brought privatization to Indianapolis some 23 years ago, Goldsmith always let the government folks bid. He felt the competition between a privatized proposal and government’s made both groups’ bid sharper and more cost effective for taxpayers.

However, Ballard’s “our way or the highway mentality” pushed a flawed project that has spiraled out of control, with key stakeholders like the county prosecutor and county clerk cut out of the loop.

But the biggest fatal flaw was the failure to explain to the public the need for consolidating courts and the county jail at one location.

Most Indy residents have never been in the county jail, a county courtroom or called for jury duty. They’ve never seen the crowded condition of our court facilities, our outmoded jail, the courtrooms in the City-County Building’s basement which are a disgrace to this county.

All taxpayers heard was a proposal to build something that would, over 35 years, cost more than Lucas Oil Stadium and the AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play, put together. The forces that wanted the justice center—the sheriff, the legal community, judges, the mayor— never went out into the community, in a systematic, intelligent way to talk with, educate and get feedback from all sides of town.

To many African-Americans, building a larger jail evokes real fears of more aggressive police tactics to fill those spaces.

To many, regardless of race, building new courtrooms and jail cells while streets crumble and jobs paying decent wages are scarce seemed a luxury, not a necessity.

Meridiam, the group behind the private proposal to build the justice center, never even used their strongest asset – Thierry Deau, founding partner and CEO of Meridiam.

Deau is French, a native of Caribbean island of Martinique, which is a French region (province). This Black man built Meridiam into a multi-billion dollar, multi-national investment business based in Paris.

I’ve met Deau twice, off the record, and while I can’t divulge the details of our conversations, I will say I was impressed with Deau’s intelligence and business savvy. Why they didn’t make our community more aware of him was a tactical mistake.

Deau and Meridiam didn’t understand the workings of Indianapolis and didn’t realize the many mistakes the mayor’s minions were making, including the city’s failure to build a broad consensus for the justice center.

I’ve agreed for years that we need to consolidate the civic and criminal courts into one facility. And it would be helpful if the county jail was right next door. But, it has to be done right and there must be a broad consensus from this entire city/county; both parties; all sides of town.

Indianapolis will decide who’ll run its government on Nov. 3. Then, that next mayor and council, armed with a mandate from the voters, should pick up the pieces of the justice center debacle and move forward.

In the meantime, there needs to be a real public education campaign of why such a justice center is needed and how to build it in a fiscally responsible manner.

Meanwhile, Indianapolis now boasts a Council that on some issues, at least, has no fear of standing up to Ballard. Finally!

See ‘ya next week!

You can email Amos Brown at acbrown@aol.com.

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