Opinion | Recovering four words: true and equal partnership

spoonmore cropped-11-21-2019-front-row-IMG_0711-2391003849-1574397683753
This Square Beacon file photo is from a joint meeting of city and county officials on the convention center expansion that took place in 2019.

Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, gave a speech last week on Thursday, released in a Facebook video, that revealed the basic approach the city will take to spur a local recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19. It’s a program the mayor is calling “Recovering Forward.”

The speech prompted a response from county elected officials in the form of a pointed press release issued late this Friday afternoon.

By way of background, the mayor had sketched out the initial part of his recovery plan at a Bloomington city council work session the Friday before. To jump start the effort, the initial part of the plan includes a request to the Bloomington city council for a $2-million appropriation.

Overshadowing the rest of the speech was the mayor’s renewed pitch for an increase to the local income tax, something he’d announced as a goal on New Year’s Day. The amount of the proposed increase last week was reduced—from a half point to a quarter point—compared to the proposal he’d made earlier.

The way the local income tax works is already a point of friction between Bloomington and Monroe County government.

But escaping mention in the local press was this passage from the mayor’s speech:

I’ll note that the City’s recovery investment can and I believe should be in parallel with a similar county government investment in recovery, with their also-healthy financial reserves. I’ve urged our colleagues in county government to expand their support for eviction protection, for our public health system, for the criminal justice system reforms so sorely needed, and for other recovery needs.

That paragraph from the address, among others, piqued the interest of the mayor’s “colleagues in county government”—who wondered why the mayor felt it was his place to urge them to do anything at all.

They wondered even more why the mayor was urging them to do things they believe they’re already doing.

Leadership?

When I asked county councilor Geoff McKim about that part of the mayor’s speech, he put it this way: “The county has, I believe, been taking the lead on all of those items. Criminal justice system reforms and health because of our statutory duties, of course. And I believe we took the lead on the issue of eviction protection, with our funding and interlocal agreement with the [township] trustees.”

[Square Beacon coverage of interlocal agreement: “County councilors give final OK for $100K for Monroe County township assistance“]

McKim wrapped up his thoughts on the topic by saying, “I don’t think we need pushing from the city on these issues.”

When I spoke to commissioner Penny Githens, she said, “We feel like we’ve been digging in so hard on this,” and ticked through several bullet points of the county’s work.

Those bullets are included in the press release that was issued late Friday afternoon. The press release, Githens said, was meant to set the record straight.

The bulleted list includes items The Square Beacon has covered, from the contributions to the local food bank  to $400,000 of support to local businesses provided by the county, using food and beverage tax proceeds.

It’s possible that line from the speech foundered on the phrase “expand their support.” Maybe it was meant as an acknowledgment of the county’s existing efforts—because “expanding” presupposes some existing support. But I think that’s a subtle semantic point that can’t carry the heavy load demanded of it.

So the county’s press release takes on more than just the task of setting the record straight. It’s a frank message to the mayor that goes something like: We don’t need any direction from you to provide the kind of solid leadership we have so far demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The press release

The opening paragraph in the press release already signals displeasure with the mayor. The second sentence reads: “We did not wait for guidance from the Bloomington mayor.” That was enough to let an astute reader know the county electeds had some sort of (new) beef.

By January, for several months, dating back more than a year, county folks and the mayor had been beefing back and forth over the convention center expansion. But by early this year, before the pandemic hit, it appeared that the disagreements over that project were on course to some kind of resolution. Of course, the convention center project has now been put aside for the foreseeable future.

So it wasn’t a surprise that the county folks weren’t seeing eye-to-eye with the mayor—about something. What was causing this new friction?

The next sentence in the press release gives a hint: “While the mayor is expected to provide guidance and direction for the Bloomington city government, we were surprised to read admonitions and suggestions for county government.”

Where did they read “admonitions and suggestions”? No citation is given.

Did they receive a memo from the mayor? I skimmed down through the rest of the press release. The final paragraph starts: “While the board of commissioners and the county council have not delivered a formal speech on the topic, we have been doing the hard work of responding to the exigencies of COVID-19.”

The sarcastic reference to “a formal speech” was a stronger hint. Were the “admonitions and suggestions” an allusion to the mayor’s speech from a week ago? After a couple of phone calls to different sources, I found the passage where the mayor urges expansion of county support for eviction protection, among other items.

Commissioner Julie Thomas pointed me to an additional passage from the mayor’s speech that stirred the county electeds to respond:

I expect very soon we will have local mandatory face coverings and more controls over potential super-spreader events, such as requiring table seating at bars, and smaller social event maximums. I expect that these protocols will be adopted very soon at the county health level or independently at the city level if need be.

That was Thursday, the day before the county’s most recent health order was issued. Hamilton subsequently issued his own order, which didn’t depart from the substance of the county’s order, but accelerated the timing of the county’s restrictions on crowd size and bar-top service.

I wasn’t able to follow up with Thomas to get clarity about the reason county electeds took umbrage at that passage—the one about Hamilton’s expectations. It’s possible the objection can be traced at least in part to the word “expect”—which by itself has an unfortunate ambiguity between predicting and demanding. A mayor has every right to predict things about what a county government will do, but demanding is a different story.

This friction isn’t partisan in flavor. The mayor is a Democrat. All three county commissioners, and six of seven county councilors are Democrats. It looks like a disagreement among Democrats.

That idea gets some support from the fact that Friday’s press release does not include in its list of county councilors the sole Republican, Marty Hawk. When I reached Hawk by phone to ask her about the omission, she did not know what I was talking about—the press release was something the Democrats had put together, she figured.

What now?

What did mayor Hamilton mean by his references to the county in his speech? I am not sure. Early Friday evening, he still hadn’t seen the press release. I didn’t hear back from him Friday night.

But I doubt it was his conscious intent to disrespect elected county officials who are members of his own political party.

What I know for sure is: The only reason I’m writing about this episode sooner rather than later is that I think it needs to be recorded somewhere as a part of this community’s political history. And I want to get it off my plate as quickly as possible.

There are other topics I should try to write about yet tonight. How are all those Indiana University students going to get tested for COVID-19 before they start school? Who will drive the Bloomington Transit buses if most of the drivers get sick with COVID-19?

So I’ll wrap up with my two cents about future communications efforts by the mayor and county electeds.

  • To the mayor: If you plan to give a speech mentioning the county government, call up someone in county government and ask, “Here’s what I’m planning to say. How’s that sound to you?”
  • To county electeds: When the mayor says something in a speech that you think sounds like an insult, call him up and say, “Hey, John, what the heck? Would you mind at some point clarifying publicly that you don’t think we’ve been slacking off over here?”
  • To all of you: The phrase “true and equal partnership” between city and county government came to be routinely mocked during work on the convention center project. Let’s reclaim that phrase as something positive. Repeat it to yourself a couple thousand times. At least while you’re repeating that phrase, you’re less likely to be writing a speech or a press release. And that means you’re more likely to be doing the work we’ve elected you to do.

 

One thought on “Opinion | Recovering four words: true and equal partnership

  1. Insightful article with great suggestions on how officials might communicate moving forward, instead of using press releases as Facebook comments. Thanks!

Leave a Reply