Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: It's time to talk about expanding Unigov

November 12, 2011

Ted BoehmIn 1969, the General Assembly enacted Unigov, which expanded the city limits of Indianapolis to include all of Marion County. At that time, the city limits were essentially the same as the current Indianapolis Public Schools district, and large areas of Marion County remained undeveloped farmland. The surrounding “doughnut” counties were largely rural areas and small towns.

Today, most of Marion County has been urbanized and major portions of the contiguous counties are devoted to vast suburban residential and commercial developments. As a result of this growth, Marion County relates to the surrounding seven counties much as the old city of Indianapolis related to Marion County a half century ago.

Unigov is surely one of the reasons Indianapolis has grown and prospered over the past several decades while many other Midwestern metropolitan areas have stagnated or declined. It is time for Unigov to embrace the surrounding counties.

Unification and simplification of governance of the metropolitan area gives residents of the entire area a stake in the selection of leadership and a voice in public policy, and facilitates approaches to important issues that mobilize the resources and energy of the entire region.

It seems there is a broad consensus that our long-term success requires adequate systems of public education and transportation, to name two areas that affect all of greater Indianapolis.

There are several reasons for our lack of attention to these problems, but one is readily identified: Our governmental structure has not kept pace with our economic and cultural growth. This is something we can fix.

Even the areas where we have shown great progress would benefit from an expanded city. A successful metropolitan area requires the amenities that attract and retain a work force that can meet the demands of the 21st century economy. Indianapolis has responded well to this reality. We have created outstanding museums, public gathering spaces, and facilities for the performing arts and amateur and professional sports.

Most of these are in the core of our city, and almost all are in Marion County. And they should be where they are. They serve the broader community, and best serve all of us, if they are centrally located.

We need to maintain and nurture this smorgasbord of cultural and entertainment options to sustain this community as a place employers want to locate and employees want to live. Maintenance and growth of existing amenities benefits everyone in the metropolitan area, whether or not they attend an Indianapolis Colts game or a performance of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Government support, usually in the form of infrastructure, is often necessary to achieve that goal. It is therefore both fair and desirable that our local government structure be designed to support the needs of the entire community, and not rely solely on Marion County politics and resources.

There is an understandable reluctance on the part of various interests to support an expansion of Unigov. Those in the suburbs may perceive it as an unnecessary invasion of their ability to direct their local affairs. And some who reside within the existing city boundaries will resist what they see as a dilution of their power.

But we are all in this together. Neither the city core and its neighborhoods nor the surrounding suburbs can thrive if the economy of the region stalls because we cannot keep pace with our competition.

It will take some courage and leadership to get this done. It may also require the alignment of some stars similar to the events of 1969.

Unigov is rightly credited as a creative approach to local government, and one envied by most metropolitan areas. This springboard for progress was to a large extent the product of a perceived practical political advantage that served to secure the Mayor’s Office for three decades. Sometimes we do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Expansion of Unigov should be on the public agenda.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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