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Politics of the Possible

Harvard professor and former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith argues for more efficient government, both with and without consolidation.



Even outsiders know not to talk consolidation in a packed Shelby County ballroom.

Stephen Goldsmith, former Indianapolis mayor, author, and professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, spent last Thursday talking about effective governance and trying, despite his appearance at the metro charter commission meeting, to avoid talking about consolidation.

"I don't come with a prescription for Memphis," he said. "I'm just going to tell you some stories about Indianapolis."

Indianapolis consolidated with Marion County in 1970. Goldsmith became mayor in 1992.

Even though Goldsmith said Indianapolis would not have accomplished what it has without consolidation, he made convincing arguments that a government merger isn't the only way to save money or streamline bureaucracy.

In the '60s and '70s, Indianapolis, like many cities, suffered from urban decay and white flight. Goldsmith says when he became mayor, citizens were still moving out.

"On a sunny day," Goldsmith told attendees at a Leadership Memphis luncheon, "I could look out my office window and see dollar bills landing in the suburbs."

To create a sense of urgency, Goldsmith went to a popular mall on the outskirts of town and posed in front of a billboard luring people to the suburbs. Then he published the picture in several local publications.

"This is the problem: We're not competitive. This has to be the standard for change," he said.

For Goldsmith, the answer for a more efficient government was in competition and privatization. It wasn't that public workers were inefficient, but they operated in a monopoly. He decided that if a private company could do something cheaper and better, he was going to let them bid against the public entity. That forced unions to try to become more competitive.

The end result was $400 million in savings, which Goldsmith then reinvested in Indianapolis' downtown.

Another goal of consolidation is to make government bureaucracy less onerous for businesses. Goldsmith told the metro charter commission that economic development was the most important result of Indianapolis' consolidation.

"We spoke with a single voice. I could make deals, shake hands, and deliver," Goldsmith said. "The ability not to have to negotiate jurisdiction by jurisdiction was significant."

But there are other ways to streamline bureaucracy for both businesses and citizens. As mayor, Goldsmith tried to get rid of needless regulations.

"Regulatory hurdles are as problematic as high taxes," he said. "A lot of our regulations were not adding anything to health and safety, but they were adding to costs."

For example, Indianapolis used to mandate that dog owners license their pets. But the licenses did nothing for the problem they were created to solve: stray dogs. It simply penalized law-abiding citizens with an inconvenience and a fee.

Instead, Goldsmith instituted a policy in which dogs had to be vaccinated, wearing a collar with the owner's information, and on a leash.

"We replaced a lot of inspection/regulatory stuff with standards," he said. "If you violate those standards, we'll write you a ticket."

Things like that seem like an easy win. Imagine if, ignoring federal air-quality standards, the city of Memphis could replace the long-reviled automobile inspection stations with simple standards. Citizens would jump for joy.

"There's no natural constituency for consolidation," Goldsmith said. "What people care about is the quality of their lives."

And maybe that's the most important part of the metro charter commission: the ability to re-imagine what local government could and should look like.

Even though we use the word consolidation, we're not talking about a fully consolidated metro area. The schools are already out of it.

Neither Indianapolis nor Jacksonville, Florida — both recently studied by the charter commission — had full consolidation. Richard Mullaney, Jacksonville's general counsel, noted that the city's suburban municipalities stayed autonomous. In Indianapolis, schools were left out entirely and fire and police services weren't consolidated until recently.

"Politics of the possible," Goldsmith explained. "You don't mess with schools or beat cops."

When it comes down to it, however, the region needs a successful, vibrant city.

"In the short run, a short-term urban loss can be a short-term suburban gain, but a long-term loss can't be a long-term suburban gain," Goldsmith said. "Indianapolis could [not] have accomplished what it did had it retained all the different units of government."

But exactly how that's done — that's the question for debate.

"You have my sympathy. There's no answer for the problem you're addressing. There's no research that says this is right or this is wrong," Goldsmith said. "The question isn't: Should we consolidate or not? It's: What should be consolidated?"

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