|Mayoral chief of staff, Thomas Cook (Twitter Photo)
Residents who live near College Avenue on Indianapolis' north side formed a community organization, CollegeAvenueIndy.org, to gather information and share their concerns with their neighbors and elected officials about proposed, important changes that could dramatically impact the lives of those living in the area. Their latest concern is the plans to develop the Red Line bus rapid transit line on College Avenue from 66th Street south to 38th Street. One of the neighborhood leaders, Dr. Steve O'Neil, had a brief opportunity to speak to Mayor Joe Hogsett last February, and he was delighted when the mayor provided him the contact information for his executive assistant and offered to sit down and hear the concerns he and his neighbors have about the proposed Red Line. Two months later, Hogsett's office has still not scheduled a meeting, and the reaction to O'Neil's persistence in setting up a meeting by Mayor Hogsett's top aide could not have been more disturbing and disappointing.
When O'Neil briefly spoke to Mayor Hogsett in February, he handed him the business card of his executive assistant, Julie Marvel, to set up an appointment. O'Neil quickly e-mailed Marvel, who politely responded that the first available appointment would be in late March or early April due to the mayor's busy schedule. "I will get back in touch just as quickly as I can to coordinate a meeting time," Marvel said. "In the meantime, I have shared your email with Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett who has been working with the various neighborhood groups on this project." Six weeks later, O'Neil had not been able to schedule a meeting with the mayor to discuss neighborhood concerns about the Red Line. In the meantime, the City-County Council has taken up deliberations on a proposed referendum for this November's ballot, allowing a quarter percent increase in the income tax, to pay for the bus rapid transit system. Having failed to get a prompt response to his e-mails, he called and left a voice mail message with Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett, whom he and other neighborhood groups had already spoken on several occasions about their concerns with TWG's planned large apartment complex project at the site of the old AT&T office building, to express his disappointment with being unable to get a meeting with the mayor scheduled. That project was tabled by the developer in the face of neighborhood opposition.
O'Neil quickly got a return call back, not just the one he had anticipated. When he picked up the phone, the person on the other end of the line identified himself as the mayor's chief of staff, Thomas Cook. "At the beginning of the conversation he said that normally someone who calls as much as I have would be put on a watch list by the sheriff," O'Neil told Advance Indiana, quoting Cook. "[Cook] said [I am] not doing that because [you are] a physician." After expressing to him his disappointment about his tone for starting off the conversation, O'Neil explained to Cook that he was simply trying to get the meeting scheduled with the mayor that had been promised to him. "God love him, but he can't do all the meetings he promises," O'Neil said, quoting Cook. In reference to his earlier contacts with the mayor's office about the TWG development at the AT&T site, Cook said the mayor's office understood his and other neighborhood residents' concerns: "[You] don't want anything built there that [you] believe is uncouth." O'Neil, not surprisingly, took issue with Cook's "snarky and condescending" characterization of his and other neighbors' concerns. "I told him we just want development that is consistent with the neighborhood and we do not decide what is 'uncouth.'"
O'Neil then tried to shift the conversation back to the immediate concern--the Red Line. "I told him our position on the Red Line and the issues regarding the illegality of the referendum due to the requirement in SB 176 that 25% of the budget revenue needs to come from ridership but that in the FTA application IndyGo claims that will only be 17%," O'Neil said. When state lawmakers passed SB 176 allowing a referendum on an income tax increase to pay for bus rapid transit, the law required the operating system to recover 25% of its operating costs from the fair box. In its grant proposal to the FTA, IndyGo specifically said fare receipts would only cover 17% of the costs. "[Cook] told me that this is a City Council issue and referred me to legal counsel for the city. "I re-iterated that if IndyGo falls short of budget due to lack of projected ridership that this will rob dollars from public works and potentially lead to greater tax increases which could be a political problem for the mayor," O'Neil said. O'Neil expressed his great disappointment that his meeting with the mayor would not occur as he believe the mayor had promised him. Cook replied, "It may not be occurring due to [your] persistence."
O'Neil then said something that hit a real sore spot. "I said that if Browning called he would get a meeting. Why can't we?" O'Neil was of course referring to the politically-connected real estate developer, Michael Browning, who wrote Hogsett a check for $30,000 to underwrite the costs of his inaugural gala in January. "[Cook] was very defensive about that and said the mayor had turned down Browning meetings several times," O'Neil said. Before hanging up, Cook told O'Neil the mayor would be disappointed that he was dissatisfied with him. "I told him it is actually worse that I am disappointed as a voter," O'Neil told us.