Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Public deserves full disclosure

August 16, 2014

The city might be negotiating a sweet deal for Indianapolis taxpayers over the proposed $500 million justice center to be built across from the Indianapolis Zoo on the former site of General Motors’ stamping plant.

Or, taxpayers might be getting a bad deal.

There’s no way to know whether either is the case, because Mayor Ballard’s administration has kept secret details of its bidding process. That lack of transparency is bad government and violates the spirit of Indiana’s open-records law.

In April, the city issued a request for proposals for an all-inclusive project-management contract, in which a developer would design, build, finance, maintain and operate the new jail and courts facility. Of five companies that responded to the RFP, the city chose three finalists. Bids are due in October, and the City-County Council will likely vote on the arrangement early next year.

Ballard officials say such a package will provide a sparkling new building with improved city services—without a tax increase. They say the new contract—likely for a 35-year term—will cost the city no more than the annual $123 million it now spends to operate courts and corrections.

And they ask us to take their word for all of that. Everyone else is left to guess.

Putting terms of deals in the public realm while they’re still in the works isn’t just good government. It also can lead to better deals, as was the case in 2010 when public input led the Ballard administration to amend terms of its parking meter privatization.

The Mayor’s Office has cited no exception to state law that would explain why it has provided to justice center bidders but not to the public the maximum fee such a contract will require, why it refuses to release the RFP document, and why it won’t disclose calculations on what the project will cost taxpayers.

This is not the first, or even the second, time the Ballard administration has asked us to accept on trust that it is a wise steward of taxpayer funds. Examples include the development of the former Market Square Arena site, the Mass Ave fire station land swap, and the Broad Ripple parking garage and retail space at College Avenue and Westfield Boulevard.

An all-inclusive management contract might be the prudent move, and the justice center might not cost an extra taxpayer dime. Other cities have had mixed success with such arrangements in funding roads, and the model is largely untested on building projects. All the more reason taxpayers have the right to see and weigh the details of such an expensive, long-term commitment.

Trust is not an entitlement; it is earned. Transparency and respect for the law are the surest ways for the Ballard administration to earn it.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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