Three of seven City-County Council members voting on a 65 percent increase in the county income tax today have a personal interest in passing the measure.
Councilmen Vernon Brown and Lance Langsford, both firefighters, and Councilman Lincoln Plowman, an Indianapolis police officer, would benefit from pay hikes resulting from the additional income.
Mayor Bart Peterson has asked for the tax to be increased to 1.65 percent from 1 percent, raising $90 million, most of which would be used for public safety expenses including contract pay raises for police officers and firefighters.
The measure will be considered by the Administration and Finance Committee.
On Monday the full council, which includes other public safety workers, votes on the measure. Council President Monroe Gray is a firefighter, and Councilwoman Sherron Franklin is a police officer.
Two other council members are married to police officers or retirees, some of whose pensions also depend on the new funding from the income tax.
Brown, a Democrat, said he supports the income tax increase and will not duck the vote based on a potential conflict of interest. As a deputy chief in the Fire Department, he said, his salary is not dependent on the contract.
"We vote on budgets and other measures that affect the police and Fire Department all the time," Brown said. "It's better to vote with a potential conflict than to not represent your constituents."
Brown said council members can't pick and choose when they vote, though some abstain because of a potential conflict.
One of those who has abstained is Plowman, who said he won't vote on issues that affect only his department and hasn't decided whether he will vote on the income tax issue.
"It's a tough decision," Plowman said. "But I've voted in the past against public safety money, and I would have voted against the income tax if we'd voted on it Monday."
The city's corporation counsel, true to form, sees no conflict of interest. He tells O'Shaughnessy:
Kobi Wright, the city's top attorney and the adviser to the city's ethics board, said council members with public safety jobs do not face a conflict of interest in the vote on income taxes or budgets. He said several members have asked, and he has given them his oral opinions on the matter.
If public safety officers couldn't vote on budgets, Wright said, they wouldn't be able to serve on a council whose major role is fiscal responsibility.
"They're not voting on the contract itself, which is negotiated by the (city) administration and the unions," Wright said. "They're only voting on the money to fund it, not to determine the salaries."
Recall that Wright also failed to see any serious problem with City-County Council President Monroe Gray failing to disclose the financial interest his concrete firm had in a city-financed public works project. As to the legality of their service on the council, O'Shaughnessy relies on the biased Indiana Association of Cities and Towns. "Firefighters and police officers have been allowed to run for office since the mid-1980s and regularly seek office, said Julia Bearce, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns." "The only qualification is that they live in the district for at least two years before taking office." O'Shaughnessy does point out that Indiana is in the minority nationally. "But nationally, it is uncommon for police and firefighters to seek office. Illinois recently passed a law allowing police and firefighters to run for office, but it is being challenged in court." "Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky severely limit political activity; firefighters and police cannot serve in office in those states."
As O'Shaughnessy's story notes, firefighters and police officers in Indiana have only been allowed to run for public office since the 1980s. That would be the time the Indiana legislature in its infinite wisdom decided the Indiana Constitution can be ignored. Article 1, Section 3 prohibits a person who is charged with duties under one of the three separate branches of government from exercising any of the functions of another branch. Could someone please do something about this?
Don't forget today's vote by the Administration and Finance Committee today at 5:00 p.m. at the City-County Building on the proposed tax increase. I can't ever recall a government hearing being scheduled at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday, except for the legislature working over-time to wrap up a session. And it falls during the height of Black Expo celebration downtown. Abdul Hakim-Shabazz had his own ideas about the timing of this evening's vote, which I won't repeat for fear of being labeled a racist. Go to this evening's vote, and don't forget to tell Brown, Langsford and Plowman they have a duty to abstain from voting on tonight's tax increase because of their blatant conflict of interest.