EYE ON THE PIE: An open letter to new mayors

November 26, 2007

It's strange, but we don't know who will be the mayors of our Indiana cities for the next four years. Ah, yes, you and I read results in the newspapers and saw jubilant winners on TV congratulated by humbled losers. But how do we know for sure until the state tells us?

I didn't find the latest results on the secretary of state's Web site. It does have the May 7 primary election results, which provide fascinating information for those with a historic bent.

In a fit of madness, I went to the Web sites of three county clerks or election boards. Marion County's clerk has full, certified, 2007 general election results posted. Vigo County's clerk has a link for municipal unofficial election results, but all the entries are zero. Allen County's Election Board offers returns from the 2007 primary election but nothing for the recent general election. All I have to do now is go through another 89 counties and I'll have a complete picture of how little we know.

What's the problem? The Web site of Indiana Business for Responsive Government had the results (without the numbers) the day after the polls closed. Why can't we get the results for the municipal elections in each county from a central state government source in a more timely fashion? We could go with something called "preliminary" or "unverified" but to give us nothing only meets our expectations, not our aspirations.

I offer these remarks because I suspect the new people who just won those municipal general elections don't have the least notion of what they are getting into. They have my condolences. They campaigned on turning things around, getting down to basics, and bringing responsibility back to local government.

Please excuse the smile on my face. I've heard that so many times before that I no longer take such words seriously. Do the newbies think the person vacating the office is incompetent or misdirected? Didn't that person make similar pronouncements when first elected?

The great problem of public office is the terrifying ignorance that surrounds public decision making. The new mayor has a new staff of people who have much to learn; the most important thing they need to learn is humility.

The new mayor has a council with several or many new members; they, too, have little knowledge of the detailed workings of government.

Mayors want to direct policy, but they are bound by legal and traditional constraints. They must rely on the city's professional staff or they have to train ignorant people to do sophisticated things. That's one reason many new government officials turn to the private sector to run specific services. Often, they discover that the public's needs are government's responsibility and cannot be met appropriately by private agents.

Each of us believes we know enough to run government. But mayors face a complex set of restrictions and demands that are overwhelming. And they do not have the staff or the money to acquire the information they need to make good decisions.

Mayors also face public expectations raised by their own election rhetoric. For example, Indiana mayors have little influence on the local property-tax bill. Mayors can do little to improve public safety because they do not have the powers to change the antisocial behaviors of their citizens. They have virtually no power to change the schools. They do not have the money for enough police officers. Despite their good intentions, new mayors face old realities. They come to appreciate the wisdom of their predecessors. Most important, they should remember that, although they may have been elected by a majority of the voters, they were not elected by a majority of the people.

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.
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