Zach Adamson, the Indianapolis City-County Council vice president, is ending 12 years on the council after being defeated in the Democratic primary in May.
His election in 2011 made him the first openly gay leader to hold countywide office in Indianapolis. In 2020, the election of three other openly gay or queer councilors created a LGBTQ caucus that nearly rivaled the size of the Republican caucus.
Adamson will be succeeded on the 25-member council by Jesse Brown, a Democratic Socialist who defeated him in the primary and will assume office on Jan. 1.
IBJ asked Adamson to reflect on his tenure on the council and his efforts to champion issues such as landlord accountability, animal welfare and environmental protection.
The transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Are there any measures that you’ve thought of, or ordinances that you’re particularly proud of either, you know, leading or having a hand in as you reflect back on your time on the council?
Obviously, within 12 years, I’ve got some really big accomplishments that are specific to me, that I think are pretty big deals. I can kind of touch on a couple of those.
When I first got on council, one of the things that I really wanted to do was to focus on at least a couple of the things that I heard from my neighbors over the past 15 years working in neighborhood organizations. And one of the biggest challenges that I heard over and over from people not just that lived near me and some of the neighborhoods that I’ve worked with in the years leading up to council…was that there was a real issue in the city regarding holding primarily absentee landlords accountable. So when I got the council, one of the first things I wanted to do was to work on a landlord registry.
This is a tool that I still to this day, I don’t think is being utilized fully to its potential but does allow for accountability from landlords, and in particular landlords that live out of state and have very little regard to what is going on in some of their properties. And this has an effect not just on the tenants that live in those properties… but for the neighborhoods in which these houses are located.
You also worked on animal welfare issues.
In my first term, a large group of animal welfare organizations and I kind of got together to rewrite our animal care and treatment ordinance. This was something that hadn’t been touched since the ’80s. And our perception of what it means to be a humane city is vastly different, you know, in the 2000s than it was in the ’80s. There were very interesting circumstances, and against the odds—remember, we had a Republican mayor at the time—we did get it done. This particular ordinance change was actually used in other cities as a model as the cities were looking to raise the standards for how domestic animals were treated.
I worked hard over the years to replace funding that had been removed out of Animal Care Services and put back into Animal Care Services so that they could attempt to try to do their job in a different way. It’s still nowhere near where it needs to be, obviously. But they’re doing a lot more with a lot more resources today than they were 12 years ago. I’m pretty proud of that.
Also, over the last 12 years, I have been working hard to get the city to invest in an entirely new… shelter. The one that we’re building now will be designed with our growing city and growing city needs in mind but also will prioritize the physical and mental health of the animals as well as the people who spend their days there—that includes both city employees and volunteers—who are also passionate about animal welfare.
The shelter that we have now was never designed for prioritizing animal health and morale among employees. It was more of a holding cell for animals until they could be euthanized and many of them perfectly adoptable. The new shelter will prioritize adoption and have much higher health standards for the animals. So that was something that I’ve been working on for a long time that we’re going to see breaking ground very soon.
And environmental protection?
The last two I’ll mention are really things that I hadn’t really planned on. I didn’t go into … office thinking about these things that sort of came to my attention during that first term.
The first being getting Indianapolis Power and Light, which is now AES Indiana, to cease coal burning inside the city limits. We tried for two years just in back-and-forth negotiations with them, making compelling arguments about the negative health effects of burning coal in a densely populated area. We even showed them at the emergency room visits from neighborhoods related to breathing issues … So I crafted a resolution and I worked for over a year to get a majority of councilors to sign on as cosponsors to this. And the Monday after my last signature on this resolution, [Indianapolis Power and Light] called and said that they would retire the last coal burning plant in Marion County in 2015 and that was a very big deal.
The last really big thing that I participated in and it was something that I had never prioritized, never even really thought of, but there was an issue about saving the Crown Hill Cemetery Forest. They have a number of old growth trees in that forest, some are estimated around 400 years old, before the United States was even a country.
… I thought it was important to preserve that green space—they call it an old growth forest—in the heart of the city. It was a very interesting process. The land was being sold to the Veterans Administration to build a columbarium, like a mausoleum for veterans. And they were going to tear down all these trees to build it even though there was space right next to it that had already been cleared. And so several advocates and I had been working with the Veterans Administration for years to try to get them to reverse plans on that, with no luck. And so on the day that they were to go in and start [removing] trees, about half a dozen, we call them ‘defenders’ of these trees, jumped the fence and chained ourselves to those trees in March—I think it was March. It was cold. I know it was snowing around 3 a.m.
They had federal agents and SWAT teams and everything and we just said ‘You’ll have to remove us out of here, that’s how important we think this is.’ …That standoff sort of lasted until around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m.
I think finally the federal agents had told IMPD to go in and remove us and IMPD thankfully said back, ‘you know, the vice president of the city council is in there they aren’t a threat to anybody. This is a federal project and if you want them removed, you’re going to have to go in and remove them yourself.’ It was then that the Veterans Administration pulled off the SWAT team and federal agents and agreed to go back to the negotiation table and see if there was a win-win situation where we can both save the trees and the columbarium could be built in nearly the same location.
What did it mean to become the first openly gay countywide elected official?
There are a lot of people that would say that being the first openly gay countywide elected official was a big accomplishment, but that was never really a goal for me. It was a hurdle to overcome, I think for both me and the LGBT community who seek to be engaged members of our communities. But I knew then as I do now, who a person romantically feels affection for has no bearing on how effective they’ll be at fighting for the issues that are important to people on an everyday basis. And I think over the 12 past four years, I think I’ve shown that this is the case to any of the lingering naysayers that had apprehension about that.
What do you think of the advancements LGBTQ people have made in terms of being elected to public office? What are some of the barriers that you still see in place and some of the biases that still exist?
There’s a couple of different parts to that. When I got on the council, there was just me. I’m not the first gay person on the council—I think I’m the first openly gay person on the council—and I think that’s important to clarify. But I think it’s a great thing that we have four self-identified LGBTQ members on our city council today … I’m really proud to say that that was maybe something that the momentum of my time in office sort of kick-started.
I am saddened to say that I think only one of us will be there in January (because of Adamson’s loss and Councilor Keith Potts’ and Ethan Evans’ decisions not to run for reelection) so that will be an interesting evolution…. But I think over time we’ve seen the current LGBTQ caucus has really prioritized the things that are the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day issues that the people of Marion County wanted us to go and fight for. They wanted us to fight for common sense legislation, they wanted us to work in across the aisle in a bipartisan fashion… and I think especially the last four years, we’ve illustrated that whether you’re gay or not has no bearing on it. The City-County Council, in concert with the mayor’s administration has really produced beyond what many similar sized cities have been able to do.
…I was really nervous about it going into the 2011 election, but the one thing that that taught me was to never miss an opportunity to give the people of Indianapolis a chance to prove how amazing they are. And they have come through time and time again, illustrating to the state of Indiana and to the world that Indianapolis is a welcoming community that celebrates our diversity. And we don’t spend all the time focusing on issues that don’t really matter, especially with regard to who we send to public office.
Have you thought about what’s next when it comes to, you know, the extra time that you’ll have and obviously, the different interests that you have as far as civic advocacy?
What’s next for me? That’s a good question. Keeping in mind, I guess, 15 years before I was on that council, I was involved in community service at the neighborhood level. Now adding to that 12 years of experience working on city issues and a primary focus as a member of the Department of Public Works Committee with the council and chairing that committee for nine of the last 12 years, I think I have really been able to focus on infrastructure and budgeting and equity throughout the city enterprise.
Public service, you know it’s one of the greatest calls a person can answer, My grandmother, Carmen Velasquez. was a community activist for migrant workers back in the ’70s (Indianapolis Monthly wrote about this in 2011) helped raise me as a child so I really feel like public service is in my blood. And for that I’m grateful. I think I’ve got a lot to contribute to our city and hopefully soon I’ll find a way to continue to be an asset to the city and my fellow residents here.
Is there anything that you wish you could have accomplished in your time or that you hope to see someone else pick up the torch and continue?
I think the issues around animal welfare are going to be ongoing. We have a real issue with animal overpopulation in the city. I hope that we’ll see some attention and some policymaking in that area.
I really had hoped to spend the next four years doing that, but that is not the case. I plan to stay involved in working on animal welfare issues with anybody who is interested in willing to partner for that process. So I plan to stay involved on that front. There are conversations ongoing now with me and a couple other animal welfare individuals and Elanco—you know, that would be their new headquarters downtown—on some projects that will help divert animals out of Animal Care and Control either through population control or finding ways to ensure that families that want to keep their animals that can’t afford to keep their animals have access to the means to do that.
What advice do you have for new councilors?
Never miss an opportunity to do something big. Remember to be bold. Remind yourself regularly that your time on the council is finite and not guaranteed. Find a place where you can make lasting changes to people’s everyday lives, and remind yourself that on a regular basis.
The second thing is, surround yourself with a handful of constituents who you know are reasonable, engaged and care. Consult with them when you don’t know what to do. You’ll find out early what these big issues are in your district and set those goals based on those conversations. Remember, the best constituent is an informed constituent.
A big part of what I believe the job of our councilors is to educate the public. People need to understand things from a variety of perspectives. They need to understand issues, dynamics, city limitations, and the considerations of other people that they may not normally consider.
Help them make informed decisions at every opportunity. Give them the tools to first be their own best advocates in the city government. Teach them how to navigate the city website and work within the system to get things done. And then when things don’t happen to work out or the system breaks down, that’s where you could be the most effective.