Members of the City-County Council are justifiably concerned that the federal indictment of their former colleague, Lincoln Plowman, might reflect on all of them in the public eye.The legislature should indeed take this issue up again. Many government employees in this state used to be barred from simultaneously holding a public office. Namely, because the Indiana Constitution contained a prohibition on the practice. In its infinite wisdom, the state legislature passed laws allowing government employees to run for and hold public office with a few exceptions. Increasingly, city and county councils are becoming filled with government employees, who obviously have inherent conflicts of interest and the ability to engage in self-serving conduct.
They need to remember that issues of trust have arisen over council behavior that is perfectly legal and in fact follows accepted policy.
If the allegations of extortion and bribery against him are substantiated, Plowman has to be seen as a textbook example of abuse of power on the part of a public official.
Even before the investigation that led to his resignation from the council, however, Plowman had an accountability problem, one that he shared with several of his peers.
He was an officer, indeed a commander, in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. He was one of four municipal employees serving on the council and thus helping to decide their own pay, benefits and other job provisions.
Here and elsewhere in the state, such double-dipping has led to a number of unseemly situations. Perhaps the highlight, at least until now, was the 2007 controversy involving then-City County Council President Monroe Gray, who voted against a council ethics investigation into a business he owned and an $83,000-a-year fire department job whose duties never were specified.
State legislation was proposed in 2009 to prohibit police, firefighters and other municipal employees from sitting on local boards and councils that vote on their pay. It failed to advance, though it enjoyed the backing of Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Kernan-Shepard commission on government efficiency. Perhaps the latest scandal will revive it.
Defenders of the current system contend that municipal employees are as entitled to be citizen-legislators as are members of the Indiana General Assembly, many of whom have their livelihoods affected by bills relating to teachers, lawyers, university employees and such. Not that state legislators don't have their own ethical issues to address; but in terms of compensation in their "day jobs," they do not have a direct vote. The distinction is sufficient to validate the state's taking action against self-service at the local level.
It also has been argued by public employees that they enrich local boards and councils with their expertise when they add elective office to their repertoire. Too often, we have seen vested interest and conflict of interest outweigh any such benefit. It should not take an extreme case to sound the alarm to that subtle danger.
I would, however, take strong exception to a column Star editor Dennis Ryerson wrote in Sunday's edition discussing the 50-year parking meter lease agreement the Ballard administration has inked with the politically-connected ACS. In a less than subtle swipe at this blog and other local blogs he describes as "noise" that have been critical of the deal, Ryerson wrote:
For starters, there are no dishonorable entities here. The administration of Mayor Greg Ballard is hardly a cesspool of political patronage. Michael Huber, who makes the city's case on this page today, is a talented administrator.
Perhaps Ryerson doesn't find something fishy about a one-sided, 50-year lease agreement being signed with a firm that just happens to be represented by the law firm that employs our Indianapolis City-County Council President and provides legal advice to the Mayor's office at the same time it is lobbying for its client to be awarded the lease, but I have to believe it would raise suspicions in the minds of any good reporter anywhere else in this country. And even if he thinks the agreement is above board, why wouldn't his newspaper question Ryan Vaughn's participation in a deal that so clearly benefits a client of his law firm, a deal the IBJ suggests could generate as much as $1.2 billion in revenues for ACS? How can he talk out of one side of his mouth about local government employees having a conflict of interest and the past transgressions of former CCC President Monroe Gray but turn a blind eye to Vaughn's glaring conflict of interest?
Further, it is laughable Ryerson would defend Ballard against charges of running a cesspool of political patronage in the same column he discusses Lincoln Plowman. After all, it was Mayor Ballard who promoted Plowman to one of the highest ranking positions within IMPD during an earlier reorganization despite there being far more qualified applicants in the pool from whom to pick. Does he expect us to believe Plowman was put in charge of the Investigations Division because he was imminently qualified? Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was the Republican Caucus Leader of the Republican-led City-County Council. A good reporter would at least question the move.
UPDATE: Some people have questioned whether Mike Huber once worked for ACS. My research reveals Huber once worked for Competitive Government Strategies, LLC in Washington from 2001-02. That company was founded and run by Skip Stitt, a top aide to former Mayor Steve Goldsmith. Like Goldsmith, Roob and CIB President Ann Lathrop, Stitt wound up working for ACS, where he is Chief Administrative Officer in its Washington office. I have found nothing that indicates he once worked for ACS. He has omitted it from his biographical information if he has done work in the past for the company. It is unclear who his clients were when he was working as an independent consultant in between leaving Competitive Government Strategies and working in the Daniels administration.