The legacy of UniGov is complicated. There are competing narratives and far-reaching consequences still felt today. Plus, there is a dwindling number of firsthand accounts of the legislation that unified the governments of Indianapolis and Marion County more than 50 years ago.
A panel of people involved in the formation of UniGov — both those who crafted the law and those who fought against it — will discuss its impact during an event, “UniGov in Indianapolis: The Intended and Unintended Consequences,” from 4-5:30 p.m. May 15 at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, 100 W. 86th St.
The event will be hosted by the Indiana Remembrance Coalition. Tickets are free, and there is a virtual option. Register here.
• Former Republican state Rep. John Mutz
• Former Republican state Rep. Ned Lamkin
• City-County Council President Vop Osili
• Attorney and civil rights activist Fay Williams
• Former teacher and state Sen. Billie Breaux
Political analyst Abdul-Hakim Shabazz will be the moderator.
Williams worked with the NAACP in the late 1960s to question the intentions behind UniGov. Some suspected it was a ploy to give white Republicans from the suburbs more political power in the state’s capital.
“I felt that the intention was to dilute the Black vote,” Williams said.
At the time, according to researchers at Ball State University, the population of Marion County was 753,500, and 16% of people were nonwhite. The population of Indianapolis was 513,500 with 23% being nonwhite.
UniGov was at least in part a response to the diminishing tax base in Indianapolis as more people left the city for the suburbs at the peak of white flight. The merger was also meant to improve efficiency by combining public services, though emergency services and some other government resources didn’t combine — at least not right away.
If you’ve ever wondered why Marion County has what are called “excluded cities” such as Speedway and Lawrence, it’s because of UniGov, which left autonomy to incorporated cities and towns with a population of more than 5,000 people.
Lamkin said UniGov was originally inspired by a desire to make Indianapolis a more attractive destination with a public university and private investment in a city some had dubbed “India-no-place.” The late Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar also complained that he didn’t have the authority to “do anything,” Lamkin said, because local government was disjointed.
But Lamkin said the idea that unifying city and county government was racially motivated makes him angry — especially when it comes from people who weren’t alive when it happened in the late ‘60s.
If anything, he said, UniGov was pro-Black.
“Because our biggest opposition came from suburbanites who didn’t want to be lumped in with the city,” Lamkin said.
Mutz, a Republican who helped create the law, said it was “never part of our intention” to diminish the political power of Black people, calling it one of the unintended consequences of unifying city and county governments.
“That particular kind of thinking is one of the things that we need to talk about,” he said of the panel.
The Recorder’s archives depict Africans Americans as generally opposed to UniGov — in part because it didn’t get a referendum — but the paper’s publisher at the time, Marcus Stewart, endorsed Lugar in his reelection bid in 1971 and served on Lugar’s task force that guided the creation of UniGov.
Mutz, who later served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Robert Orr, recalled with a sense of nostalgia the willingness to compromise in order to pass legislation.
“We realized it was imperfect and would have to be worked on in the future and changed,” Mutz said. “But we did see it as a turning point.”
One of the compromises Mutz talked about was education. UniGov did not unify school corporations, leaving instead 11 school districts in Marion County. According to researchers at Ball State, suburban school districts excluded from the merger had a Black enrollment of only 2.6%.
In his book, “An Examined Life: The John Mutz Story,” Mutz writes about unifying school districts.
“Consolidating government was one thing. Consolidating schools might be another,” he wrote, noting the climate around school desegregation and the perception of city schools.
Mutz continued: “I understood why we did not think like we could take on the issue at the time, but as I look at the fate of public education in Marion County, I think we would have been better off if we had tried to include the schools.”
Breaux was a teacher at the time and said school districts were likely excluded from the legislation because it would have been difficult to convince legislators to unify them.
UniGov has been “very successful” in building up the downtown area, Breaux said, but the darker part of its legacy can be seen in an inner-city school district — Indianapolis Public Schools — not reaping the benefits of an expanded tax base.
More than half a century after it became law, Breaux said she didn’t anticipate back then that UniGov would still be a hot topic in 2022. But even the parts she considers a success, such as downtown investment, Breaux sees as coming at the expense of Black people and other minorities.
“And I don’t see that changing,” she said. “I see that getting worse.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.