Fishers and Local Government and Hamilton County and Regional News and Government & Economic Development and Government

Town of Fishers considers new form of government

January 19, 2009
Sitting in gridlocked traffic along Interstate 69, Fishers residents might already think of their town as a city.

This sprawling suburb of 65,000 people certainly looks nothing like the burg of less than 1,000 it was three decades ago. But down at the municipal government complex, Fishers is still a town, just as it was incorporated in 1891.

But more residents of this commuter's haven are asking whether their town—which is larger than Anderson, Kokomo and Lafayette—should be governed like a city, with its own elected mayor.

The town-or-city question comes up often in growing communities, said Tom Bredeweg, field services manager for the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.

"One of the things that drives it is, 'We're big, so why shouldn't we be a city?'" he said.

A new political action committee in Fishers, CityYes, is midway through gathering 1,600 signatures, which would force the Fishers Town Council to put the question before voters for the first time since 1998, when residents voted the idea down. The town council may also decide on its own to hold a referendum.

If a majority of voters agrees to switch, Fishers will replace its seven-member council and full-time town manager with a nine-member common council and full-time mayor.

The question about form of government has sparked a surprising level of interest among residents, Town Manager Gary Huff said. Sixty people have applied for one of 28 spots on a town-council-appointed study committee.

Greg Purvis, a lawyer and Democratic activist who serves as chairman of CityYes, started the movement during his failed run for town council in 2007.

"I've thought about this for a long time," Purvis said. "Why is this a town? It's too big."

Fishers is by far the largest town in Indiana. Its population is twice as great as the next contender, Merrillville, which has a population of 31,174.

Purvis said taking the leap to cityhood is about more than notions of grandeur. A longtime political junkie, he believes it's about making local government and politics accessible. All of Fishers' town council members serve the community at large, but in a city, six of nine council members would be elected only by their districts.

Purvis thinks it's too difficult to launch a viable campaign for town council in a suburb of 65,000.

"No one runs against the incumbents," he said. "They find it too intimidating to run from at large."

The allegation strikes a nerve with Town Council President Scott Faultless, who won his seat in November 1995, the year the council expanded from five members to seven. Faultless beat out two other candidates in that election, but he hasn't faced an opponent in the 14 years since.

"If I was doing a horrible job, or if I was doing stupid things, I guarantee you, I'd have competition," Faultless said.

Purvis' run in 2007 was the first general election contest for town council since 1995. But council members in the Republican stronghold have faced primary competition. Art Levine, appointed to fill a vacant seat in April 2007, beat a primary challenger before going on to defeat Purvis by a wide margin.

Faultless' response to Purvis' electoral complaint: "To me, that means you're a weak candidate."

New order

Making Fishers a city wouldn't guarantee an instant change in the lineup at government meetings. After all, Westfield became a city in 2008 and elected former Town Council President Andy Cook as its first mayor.

But conversion would mean a real change in Fishers' power structure, especially with the election of a full-time mayor.

"Mayors of Indiana are very potent," Bredeweg said. "You'll go to the other states and hear about the strong-mayor system, but they're not nearly as strong as Indiana mayors."

The mayor has the authority to appoint and supervise all local government administrators. Theoretically, the mayor could appoint a professionally trained manager like Huff, but that person's job would be subject to the winds of politics.

Huff, who is making $113,022 this year, said the ethics of his profession prevent him from influencing voters, especially on an issue that could affect his own job.

In other states, Bredeweg said, a municipality the size of Fishers would probably have a so-called "weak mayor" form of government. The mayor would be an at-large member and leader of the city council. Day-to-day administration would be left to a city manager serving at the pleasure of the whole council.

Many Midwestern cities turned to government-administration pros early in the 20th century, when corruption and patronage were widespread at city halls, Bredeweg said. But a protracted legal battle over changing the form of government in Indianapolis kept Indiana out of the reform movement.

"Around local government," Bredeweg said, "we have a saying: It's not the structure. It's the people."

Purvis thinks Fishers needs a chief executive who can propose policies and carry them out, someone at the top voters would hold accountable every four years.

"The point is, who's in charge?" he asked.

Purvis said he's not looking to become Fishers' first mayor.

"Not only no, but hell no," he said.

Faultless doesn't have much esteem for mayors, in general. But he said, in a deeply sarcastic tone, he wouldn't stand in the way of cityhood.

"If having a figurehead, and investing one person with a tremendous amount of authority, who can create a bunch of liabilities by him or herself, if that's what people want, then I can live with it," he said.

Towns rarely switch

When Fishers residents voted on the town-or-city question in 1998, they overwhelmingly rejected conversion.

Even back then, Fishers was growing fast. Its population had risen from 7,000 in 1990 to 18,400. By July 2000, the population was estimated at 39,069.

Despite breakneck growth, Fishers appears well-run, said Jamie Palmer, a senior analyst at Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment.

"They function quite well because they have a professionalized local government," Palmer said. "They're big enough; they can support staff. They're not really, necessarily, going to gain that by becoming a city."

No one hammers home that point like Faultless.

"To me, the only thing you can do is look at your track record," he said. "We've been named one of the best places to live in the country by Money magazine. We have the lowest tax rate in Hamilton County. Compare any city with a population above 15,000. Our tax rate's lower than every city."

Although many towns ponder becoming cities, Bredeweg said, "In many cases, the answer is, we can make our town structure work for us."

Since 1976, only Carmel, Greendale, Jonesboro, Austin and Westfield have made the switch.

Austin, population 4,361, decided to convert in 2008 because leaders of the southern Indiana town along Interstate 65 wanted to compete with neighboring cities, Bredeweg said. They wanted a mayor to lead the charge on economic development.

Westfield's conversion, also last year, was fueled in part by disputes with the city of Carmel over unincorporated land. When there's no annexation agreement in place, state law gives the upper hand to cities.

Fishers avoided that problem by reaching an annexation agreement in 1994 with the neighboring city of Noblesville.

There's no single, nagging problem compelling Fishers to embrace life as a city, and Purvis doesn't think voters need one.

"It's not about fixing anything. It's about changing the system to make it better," he said. "To make it more responsive. To make it more proactive. To provide better leadership."
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