Home > Features > Top GOP Mayoral candidates speak out
Top GOP Mayoral candidates speak out
FWR talks to Brown, Doden, and Hughes before the May 3 primary
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
With the May 3 primaries looming, FWR had a chance to talk to the three main GOP contenders for the Mayoral ticket. So, without further ado…
Brown was elected to an at-Large seat on Fort Wayne City Council in 2007. In her first term, she’s earned a reputation for being very conservative when it comes to finances, and a strong advocate for more transparency when it comes to how local government does business. You can find out more about Brown’s background at lizbrown4mayor.com.
Why do you want to be Mayor?
I took the seat on City Council because I thought I had some value to add. After being on Council for a couple years, it became apparent that as just one of nine council people I wouldn’t be able to do what I really thought I could do and should do in terms of making some changes with the City and how we do business. Too many of the decisions start at the Mayor’s office, they’re policy based, and they’re not something Council can vote on, so that’s where I want to be to make those changes.
You have a reputation on council as being kind of…
I was going to say “forthright”…
I take my job very seriously. Whenever I’ve had a responsibility, I take it very seriously. This is serious business. I’m spending a lot of the citizen’s dollars, so I do not make apologizes for wanting to make sure that I have all the information I need to make the decisions that are required of me. I want to be a good steward of the citizen’s dollars.
I’d have to say that I’ve noticed a change in employees, when they bring projects to us. I make the time and effort to be informed — I don’t expect them to spoon feed me — but now they have also made sure that all of us have the information we need ahead of time.
I think — and this is why people don’t like government — you just become complacent and rubber stamp things. Everyone knows we need to buy rock salt every year, so it’s automatic. I mean, I can’t even get my hand up to ask a question, and someone will say “move to pass.” And you know what? Sometimes you have those conversations, and you find out that we haven’t looked into alternatives recently. Just like we voted on gasoline for the year. The last two years, we used a hedge fund, and it turns out we lost money on the hedge fund. Now we’re not doing that. You find there are other alternatives.
I don’t think it’s burdensome to ask employees if they’ve investigated alternatives, and how they put a particular contract out to bid, and what the parameters were. So I don’t make any apologies for doing my job, because it’s not what I need to know alone, it’s also what I think the citizens need to know.
You said above “this is why people don’t like government.” There is some anti-government sentiment out there among conservatives, but you obviously see your experience on City Council as an asset.
I think having run the budget, you really start to dig down deep into what it takes to run the government, what we need to do to offer the services we are expected to provide, and what we don’t need to do. What I point out to people, and what I’ve also realized during my term on council, is that the employees that we have — and most of them do a pretty good job — can see these seismic shifts; Republicans come in or Democrats come in, everyone is going to clean house and start over. But if you don’t understand where the issues are, and you are not able to attack them directly — and I really mean attack them, right off the bat — then your term of four years, which can seem like a long time, will be very short, because just as you’re getting to the root of the problem, and getting ready to make those changes, it’s over. These employees have been there for a long time, and if you’re really going to make them change how they work, and what their functions are, then you have to have a little more working knowledge of the City.
What did you learn on City Council that you didn’t know before you got there?
I have been very impressed by many of the employees I have encountered. They take their jobs very seriously and are willing to make changes. They’re looking to make improvements. They’re frustrated. They think we could do a better job. Like any other person, they take pride in what they do, and they’re looking for opportunities to grow in their job. That stereotype of the public sector employee just punching a clock… that’s not true. They take their job seriously, but they’re not given leadership, they’re not given direction, and they’re not given the opportunity to grow.
What do you see as the Mayor’s role?
The Mayor should set the policy, set the tone, for how we’re going to conduct business internally, and as a Republican, how we’re going to help business in the private sector to grow. When I say that, I mean what are we doing that’s within the government’s role to hinder or help business? And how can we remove the hindrances and speed up the processes in terms of helping them.
I know one of my opponents talks about being a marketer. Certainly, the Mayor’s opinion is respected, even if the Mayor is not a key decision maker. If a business is thinking of moving here, the Mayor’s position, their support, lends credibility and impact.
I don’t think that’s there now. I think that’s in part why we see the growth of all these other economic development entities, because the Mayor’s position has not been recognized as that.
In one of your campaign statements, you said “being fiscally conservative doesn’t mean not spending money.” Could you elaborate? Why did you feel the need to say that?
I go to a lot of different conservative groups, and sometimes, the rhetoric gets ramped up. That happens on all sides. You hear it on the Democratic side too — “conservatives are going to strip away everything and we’ll be back in the horse and buggy era,” that sort of thing. With conservatives, sometimes I think there’s that sentiment of “what are we spending this money on?” We have to spend money to maintain our roads and our sewers and to pay our police and fire and other essential employees. There are certain responsibilities that only government can or should do, and so you have to spend money.
On the other hand, I think it’s spending that money where we’re spending it… I don’t say this to be nitpicky, but as just one example, when we talk about all the consultants that have been hired (by The City) that’s what’s frustrating to people. If these consultants were hired and the strategic vision and plan was laid out — “this is what we hope to accomplish,” or I’ll even settle for “this is what we got from them” — and people could see a bigger picture… but we don’t get that, and it just seems like the government is wasting money, spending money that’s not theirs.
So, do you believe there’s a lack of transparency that exacerbates the frustration some people feel toward the current administration?
What I have seen is the current administration keeping everything close to the vest. Mitch Harper (city council, R-4) tried to initiate more transparency, but I think it’s even harder to get information. I think the reason for that is two-fold — they don’t like to be second guessed, and I also think, in part, that they don’t know what they’re doing sometimes. We’ve had a couple different deputy mayors, we’ve had a couple different PIOs… the PIOs are not just sitting at the computer sending out press releases; they’re helping to formulate policy, too, because you can see the change in direction in what they’re doing. And so, I think as all those changes are made, it’s “well, now we’re going to try this, now we’re going to do it this way…” and so there’s no leadership.
The whole gambling thing is a classic example. The Mayor is saying “I don’t have a position; I think the citizens should decide,” while meanwhile, nobody knew that we had hired these lobbyists to actively pursue the issue. Just be honest about it. Take the hits, if you will, but be honest with what your plan is, and let the voters decide the next election cycle.
I have to say that is one thing I would change, not only with the citizens, but I would share much more information with City Council. City employees will brief us before a bill comes, but it’s only in that two-week cycle. We’re rarely given a heads up. I was actually kind of shocked. Here I’m an advocate for the citizens, and I’m asking the administration, “do you want to know what they’re saying? Do you want to know what their interests are?” I could be a mouthpiece for the policies I agree with… but we’re never asked to do that. We’re never asked to give our input as regards what our priorities would be with respect to the state. We hire lobbyists to do that. It’s very convoluted.
One of the big topics these days is the Fort Wayne Community Trust and City Light Lease Settlement funds. You’ve said you would like to basically save it in case of an unexpected expense or a special opportunity.
The first year I was on Council, one of the city employees mentioned they would like to look into the possibility of creating a bond bank, which is ironic, because right now — and we’re going to be briefed on it — there’s this new federal mandate requiring the city to install an ultraviolet disinfection system for the city’s drinking water, which will cost $30 million. They’re proposing to use the state-revolving loan fund, where there’s so much money every year the state puts aside for this, it’s actually federal dollars, and then we get to borrow from it at a very, very low interest, lower than a bond interest. So, knowing this, and knowing about the idea of a “bond bank,” I thought “well, this is our own revolving loan fund.” Instead of borrowing from the state and paying them interest, we borrow from ourselves, we keep this fund liquid — we invest it, but liquid enough to borrow, and set parameters on how it’s invested and parameters as to how much we borrow from it on an annual basis.
This $30 million was not contemplated in the rate increase we had a couple years ago. So, instead of raising rates, take a portion of that $38 million, borrow internally from it. Then, going forward, city utilities has to pay back into that fund. We can determine whether or not we actually charge interest, but at least in their budget for next year, they have to prioritize, they’d have to pay it back so that fund can be replenished. That’s a classic example of how people are going to directly feel the impact of those rate increases, and this would prevent that. We wouldn’t have to raise people’s rates, and the city utilities, if they budget carefully just as they would going forward, would pay it back.
The last time we voted for a bond was 2009, and other council had expressed concern — if we only had the cash in hand to pay for this infrastructure — we don’t have that cash on hand to do $20 million worth of infrastructure every year. But if we had this fund and could pay as you go for certain projects… Other projects need more careful budgeting. For example, I believe in that 2009 bond, there were 10 traffic signals which cost $125,000/year. If you know you have a bond, you can throw a million-and-a-half dollars worth of traffic signals in. We probably didn’t have the need in one year, but they probably thought ‘what the heck.’ I’m saying, without the bond they would have to budget more carefully. If you really need 10 signals in a year, you can borrow from the fund. Right now, none of these departments have to pay back these bonds directly, so they don’t feel the pain. Like if you take out a loan to do some improvements on your house, you need to make adjustments elsewhere in your budget — maybe you don’t go out to dinner that often. The City doesn’t do that.
How do you feel about city government being involved in downtown development?
I said this from the beginning: if people don’t live and work in the core of the city, then everything falls down hill after that. Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in the state, and we are the economic driver of this region. There are no suburbs unless there is the city of Fort Wayne. So I think downtown development is really important. I think we’ve taken some mis-steps, because obviously, it’s inexpensive to live here, it’s easy to live here, the majority of people do not need to use public transport since it’s convenient to drive, you can get a nice house in or out of the city… you have so many choices.
But what I think we’ve done is we think, “well, we’ll just put some residences downtown, and then everything flows.” It doesn’t work that way. We have to encourage businesses to stay down there, and make it easy for them to grow, and then, as you have that critical mass, you get people who want to stay downtown.
And it’s not just young people. I’ve been in other communities where there are more baby boomers living in nice condos, and they like it because they’re empty-nesters and they walk downstairs to dinner or to the theater or whatever. So what we need to do is we need to attract businesses.
It was really interesting, because I was on the downtown design committee, and I kind of felt that I was really there to be the “break.” I had some concerns on how that was going to be implemented. I had been assured by everyone on the committee and the City staff that this would not cost businesses and it would not be an impediment, but many of the committee in my opinion seemed much more concerned with the aesthetics than business, and at the end of the day, we need the business. I’ve had businesses telling me that just to get a sign in is onerous, so they’re not going to stay downtown, and if they have an opportunity to go outside the city limits, they’re going to do that. To be honest, we can have all the festivals we want, and having the Tincaps is great — I spoke out in favor of that before I was on Council — but at the end of the day, those are one time events. To get people to live there, they have to be working there. We have a lot of empty office space, a lot of potential. We need to make sure it’s easy to work there, and it isn’t. Ultimately, people need to work there to achieve that critical mass.
The other week, you and many other candidates participated in a forum sponsored by the Allen County Right to Life, Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne, and the Indiana Family Institute that touched on some social issues that the mayor doesn’t necessarily have influence over. Considering that you’ve made finances a cornerstone of your campaign, is talking about those issues important, or is it a distraction?
I didn’t think it’s a distraction. I think it’s fair, and I think those questions are legitimate, and to be honest, voters want to know. We were asked questions about, for example, the casino, and that’s certainly legitimate. I think people understand on a day-to-day basis the Mayor may not have to make decisions on some social issue but the Mayor can have some indirect influence sometimes. So it’s not a distraction. Like I said, it matters to some people. They’re going to ask those questions, and you better be prepared to answer.
You can find out more about Liz Brown at lizbrown4mayor.com.
A newcomer to politics, Doden is currently the director of investments at Ambassador Enterprises, a consulting, investment and private equity firm. Before that, he led the distribution and fabrication arms of Ambassador Steel Corporation. You can find out more about Doden’s background at ericdoden.com
Why are you running for Mayor?
You do things at times because you feel that you can make a contribution, that you want to serve your community, and the problem that I began to identify last summer is that we have no plan for growth. I have a friend of mine that’s the Mayor of Valparaiso, Jon Costas, and he’s done a wonderful job in the last eight years in helping that community reach its full potential. He has the city plan right there, on the city website. When I came back to Fort Wayne kind of excited after seeing Jon’s city plan and wanting to know what our city plan was, I couldn’t find one.
That began the process and the journey of decision making over six months, because even though you might be willing to serve, and you have a desire to see your community improve, I think that you make decisions based on advice and counsel from others. So I went through a six month process where I really tried to seek out my advisors and over 200 people in the community and discover what they liked about Fort Wayne, what they wanted to improve, what they would do if they were mayor for 4 years, and that began the journey.
Could you elaborate a little on what you mean by “plan for growth”?
When you’re the CEO of a city or an organization, one of the things you have to do is identify what your top problems are and then develop a solution, and it’s clear to me that the top issue we have is that Fort Wayne is losing too many jobs, and that we’ve also seen a wage decline for the last 15 years. That is the central issue. Now, there’re other issues we have to deal with, but if we don’t solve that one and we don’t increase our tax base — I’m not talking about increasing taxes, I want to be clear here; I’m talking about attracting and retaining talent and businesses — then we’re going to continue to struggle over how to split up an ever-shrinking pie. When that begins to happen, you begin to have problems with infrastructure, you begin to have problems with housing values… that starts a cycle where you have less and less revenue to be able to take care of your city. Liz (Brown) and Paula (Hughes), I know they’re concerned about effective use of tax dollars — Paula has emphasized the debt in her campaign, though I think the important thing is that we have well-managed debt, not that we’re debt free — but neither had a plan for growth, and it was clear that that was not their area of expertise.
How does your business background make you qualified in that area?
I think we’re going to need people coming from the private sector to the public sector, and that they’ll bring a new kind of leadership. I think it’s a leadership that has experience creating jobs. I’ve had experience balancing budgets and inspiring people to be successful. In the business environment, if you don’t do that, you’re out of business. I think we have to bring that same level of energy… it’s not that you run a government like a business, but there are certain principles you have and certain things you learn in leadership in running large organizations in the private sector that you can apply and need to apply, and I’m the only one with experience to do that. Neither Liz nor Paula have ever run a large organization of any size. I think when most people really look at our bios, they’ll understand there’s a difference between being a legislator and being an executive. What we’re electing is the CEO of our city.
You also have to ask: who do you want marketing Fort Wayne? I think when you look at my experience in business and my knowledge of business, my ability to speak the language of business and to market Fort Wayne to businesses to attract and retain them here, I think that gives me an additional advantage, because I understand their mindset and where they’re coming from and how to talk the language that will make us more attractive in terms of trying to attract businesses here.
You used the phrase “CEO” and talked about being able to “market” Fort Wayne. Is that what you see as the Mayor’s primary job?
If you look at some of the best-run cities in America, the mayor is both a CEO and a CMO — Chief Marketing Officer — and they brand their city. You think about Chicago and Daly, or New York and Guliani and now Bloomberg, they brand their city, and they play this tireless role of promoting their city both regionally and nationally, and even worldwide. I think that’s an important function of what you do as mayor, because how people view you — and this is what a lot of marketing is, engineering the perception of who you are as a city and a people — will ultimately dictate how they interact with you and how they buy your product.
How can local government encourage growth while remaining “hands off” as far as the private sector is concerned?
I agree with the notion that governments do not pick winners and losers, and governments do not create jobs; jobs are created by the private sector. But I do believe that your leadership in a city does create an environment where entrepreneurship and innovation can grow. How easy is it to do business here? How customer-friendly are the team of people we’re dealing with in city government? Are we over-regulated? Over-taxed?
What concerns me is that when you talk to our business leaders here, they do not find Fort Wayne to be an easy place to do business. If it were just one or two of them saying it… but I’ve been all over town, and I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of business owners separately, and they are not happy with Fort Wayne. So, at some point, you have to say that if our customer base, our business base is not happy, then we have to start changing the way we do things or we’re going to lose those people. I do believe government plays a role in creating a culture and environment of innovation and entrepreneurship, where people feel they can flourish and want to do business.
Backtracking a little to something we touched on earlier: your two opponents have experience in local government. You don’t. Why do you feel that not being in local government is an asset to your campaign?
When you’re part of the system, you can sometimes reach a point where you lose some creativity, where you’re encumbered by your view of what can and cannot be done. In the private sector, you have to be innovative and creative to survive, and we’re living in a world where we’re going to have to become increasingly innovative both in city government as to how we provide services and how we attract and retain businesses and talent. Having that experience in the private sector is a big advantage, because you’re able to bring the experience of learning to survive in the marketplace. You can bring that same mentality to how you want to govern a city — we want to be a city of excellence that’s reaching its full potential, that we’re managing every part of our city, which includes growing our tax base and our revenues, also includes we are efficient and effective with our spending, that we’re managing our debt but we’re also managing our assets and making sure that if there’s an asset we have, that it’s being used appropriately.
What has the current administration done well in managing our assets and resource, and what has it done poorly?
I think one of the things it has done well is it has continued to try to leverage some of the ideas that were given by Graham Richard on becoming more efficient and effective, using Six Sigma. They’ve tried to carry those on, and they’ve kept good people in place that have allowed them to continue some of those initiatives.
Where they can improve… Tom (Henry) is just a very nice guy. From everything I can tell he is a man of integrity. But Tom is a ceremonial mayor. Instead of pro-actively marketing Fort Wayne and getting out there and really attracting and retaining business and being very aggressive on that, I think he’s largely been ceremonial in nature. If your city is running at 100%, then you can afford that, but if your city needs to grow — and we clearly do, because we’re losing jobs and our wages are declining — then you need a much more aggressive Mayor who is going to market Fort Wayne and really make sure we’re attracting talent and businesses.
Could you talk about your plan to attract that kind of talent to Fort Wayne?
We have a goal of attracting a thousand entrepreneurs over the next 10 years. What we want to do is identify who they are, regionally market Fort Wayne to the different MBA programs, and try to attract this talent to Fort Wayne to start businesses.
So, we set that goal. Then we begin to measure our progress and performance, and we publish that for people to be able to see what we’re doing. We track how many businesses are started here, how many jobs they create, what’s the average wage of those jobs. And we just continue to create this culture where people say ‘this is the city where I want to start a business’ — having some business plan competitions, encourage the formation of additional private investment capitol, things like that.
Your ideas for the Community Trust and Light Lease settlement money are related to that. When I interviewed you a month or so ago, you talked about a privately administered “angel fund” idea that some cities have developed, for access to capitol for people who want to start businesses…
We need to have a quality of life that attracts and maintains quality people. Part of what we know is that people have a lot of choices of where to live. We have a high quality of life — we always say Fort Wayne is great place to raise a family, and it is. But I’ve heard this from a lot of people that we do not have a quality of life for our 20 and 30 year olds. So they’re going to other places and that’s where they’re starting their businesses.
So I think part of what the light lease money can do… right now, we have a tough time getting local private equity sources, people with a lot of capitol — they are looking to place that money to make a return. So I believe we can do $100 million in new projects to enhance our city and quality of life, by having the banks lend about $70 million, and we would then lend $15 million out of the light lease money, and that would entice $15 million of private investment to come to our city.
This would do four things from my perspective: it would increase our tax base, because now we have $100 million of new private structures that pay taxes; it will employ people in a down economy; it will improve our quality of life; and we’ll be able to make a return on our loan. We’ll make probably between 5 – 7% on the loan. And we’ll get that money back in 3 – 5 years when that building or that project is sold or re-financed.
So it’s a win-win-win-win all the way around for us as a city. We’re allowing our banks to have good things to lend to so they can make more money locally, and people who have the means can make a return financially.
I believe one of your opponents characterized that idea as being risky…
Right now, that $38 million is invested in something — it’s invested in stocks, it’s invested in some sort of bonds, but I don’t even know what it’s invested in. But we know it’s invested somewhere, because we know it lost a lot of value when the stock market collapsed. So right now, it’s at risk, and really if that investment decreases in value, we get nothing for that, we just lose value in our portfolio. So what I’m suggesting is that instead of investing all that money into corporate stocks and bonds, or whatever it’s in, we just take a portion of that money — and it’s just a portion — and we invest it, alongside the bank. We lend it to projects that will enhance our tax base and increase the value of our city. We’re already at risk in the marketplace by having it invested somewhere. Why not invest it in things that are going to enhance and improve our community? I don’t see what the fear is in doing that. Because I will tell you this: none of the investors that put $15 million of equity into a project are going to want to lose that money — they’re incentivized to make sure these are good projects because they’re the people that lose.
You and the other candidates have made debt and finances a cornerstone of your campaigns. The other week, you participated in a forum sponsored by the Allen County Right to Life, Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne, and the Indiana Family Institute that touched on some social issues that the Mayor doesn’t necessarily have influence over. Is talking about those issues important, or is it a distraction?
I do see social issues as important. If you have strong families, you’re going to have much greater chance for strong economics. We know that when people are struggling financially, that takes a toll on family. If I’m not doing well in my marriage, I probably won’t do well in my job. If we as a community ignore the social issues and don’t recognize the importance of strong, healthy families, that takes its toll.
How does the mayor influence that? As you can well imagine, I’m strictly a small government person; I don’t believe government should play a big role in our personal lives. But at the same time, we can give people information on where they can get help, we can give people access to organizations and groups that can help. And there are some phenomenal non-profit organizations that can help people with their marriages, help people through their financial crisis.
So I don’t think talking about those issues is a distraction at all. As we strengthen our families and the core of our community, I really believe that we will continue to have a competitive edge in attracting and retaining talent and businesses.
You can find out more about Eric Doden at ericdoden.com
Of the three top candidates, Hughes has the most experience in local government. She served on Allen County Council from 2002-2010, when she resigned to seek the Mayor’s office. She also serves on the board of a number of organization boards in the area, including the Allen County Redevelopment Commission, Fort Wayne-Allen County Economic Development Alliance, and the Innovation Center (NIIC) Board. Before being elected to County Council, she was the first full-time president of the Downtown Improvement District. You can find out more about Hughes’ professional background at paulahughes.com
Why do you want to be Mayor?
I had a wonderful experience working in Allen County government and seeing first hand how I could transform the environment of government by focusing on a cash-based budgeting system. I had this experience where we started in a deficit; there was really a fiscal crisis when I started on County Council and through the years we’ve turned it around and really positioned the county very well both financially and from an operational standpoint, and I think Fort Wayne needs a dose of that.
Budget that’s based on the cash that comes in each year, not projecting revenues from prior years or spending money that essentially you don’t have
What do you see as the Mayor’s main job?
I see the Mayor as needing to be the chief executive of the administration of the city. You have to have that person who is setting the values and vision and mission of the organization, sort of like a corporate CEO would do. But the Mayor is also the champion of the community, and so you are that main cheerleader out there, encouraging the projects that create character in the community.
In some of your press statements, you’ve said you were the only proven conservative. Could you elaborate on that?
What I mean by that is that I’m proven by experience, and I refer to the experience I had on County Council, of taking county government from a deficit to a surplus, balancing the county budget. I have hands-on experience in economic development. I’ve been on the Alliance board for seven years, worked with companies like General Motors, Uniroyal Goodrich, Greatbatch Medical. It’s a long list of folks I’ve been involved with in the transactions that determine whether or not these companies are going to choose our community. A lot of it is that experience on the fiscal and economic development end. I’m a pro-business fiscal and social conservative. I’m committed to smaller government, I signed a no new taxes pledge, when I was a member of county council, I proposed property tax rebates, and I’m a pro-life, pro-family conservative. I was twice elected president of County Council. I remain as one of County Council’s appointments to the county redevelopment commission, and I am one of the county’s three appointments to the Economic Development Alliance board. They’ve kept me in those roles because they value the work that I’ve done in the economic development arena.
It seems that there’s a certain amount of anti-government sentiment among conservatives these days, a sort of distrust towards anyone who has been in government for a while. But your campaign is really emphasizing your experience.
It’s a strength because I know what I’m going into and I have that hands-on experience. I think people get frustrated with politicians that just sit in a seat and don’t do anything with it. I understand that frustration. But I served my two terms on County Council, and I did not run for re-election. If I were a career politician, I would have kept my council seat. It’s a very safe seat, in terms of demographics, and I could have been re-elected, but it just felt disingenuous to me to run for county council one year, and then turn around and run for Mayor the next year. I understand that criticism, but I think it’s most targeted when it’s levied at people who have not accomplished things during their time in government, and I’ve got a long track record of accomplishments, and that’s what really differentiates from the other two main contenders in this Republican primary.
I’m a little sketchy on my history, but weren’t you initially elected to Allen County Council as part of a sweep of “new Republican blood” that was frustrated with what they saw as stagnation?
I’ll give you the story. I ran for County Council in 2002 against Bob Armstrong, who had been Mayor. Before I was on County Council, I ran the Downtown Improvement District, and it was while I was running the DID that the arena debate came up — the whole community was debating whether we expand the Memorial Coliseum or build an arena downtown. Running the DID, I felt very strongly that if you were going to spend the money anyway, we should make the investment in downtown. It didn’t go that way, but it really peaked my interest in the people that represented us on County Council.
At the time, it seemed like County Council and the Allen County Commissioners were under the radar. People weren’t really tuned in to what County Council was doing or what it could be doing. I ran along with some other folks — it wasn’t a slate; we all had separate district offices — but Cal Miller, Darren Vogt and I all ran on very similar platforms and were elected at the same time. So yeah, we ran on a platform of really bringing fresh perspective to County government. That’s part of what I’d bring to the City. Even though my experience is with county, the public sector is in many ways the public sector — are your values aligned with the community and are you going to be able to implement those changes?
As the first full-time president of the DID, do you still take an interest in downtown development and do you think it’s an important issue?
That’s where my heart is still. I have this breath of experience managing government from my time on County Council, but there’s a part of me that put my heart and soul into downtown. And I continue to serve. One of the things I do as a member of the Alliance board is serve on their downtown sub-committee, and I’ve kept connections to the DID and other organizations that are working to improve downtown.
I still feel strongly that we have to focus resources in a way that continues to sustain our downtown. “You can’t be a suburb of nowhere” — Bill Hudnut said that when he was mayor of Indianapolis, and I believe that very strongly. Downtown, the traditional downtown, is part of what defines character for a community. It’s a gathering place, it’s a common ground, and we need that as a place to come together.
But I think one of the places you may be going with your question is how I reconcile being a fiscal conservative with the need to continually improve downtown. For me, it’s a partnership, it’s a public-private partnership, which is what Harrison Square was supposed to be. And I was supportive of the project, I testified in favor of it back in the very early stages when City Council was considering the pros and cons of this.
The project itself has a lot of merit, and certainly Parkview Field has done a lot to raise our community’s expectations for public projects in this community. But the problem was how the financing came together, and of course none of us knew that until after the project was approved. I think that lack of transparency and the unwillingness of the City’s Redevelopment Commission to really enforce the standards of the contract are what’s troubling about the project.
Do you see any big, ambitious downtown development projects like that happening in the future?
Well, like I said, the reason I’m such a big fan of Parkview Field is because it’s downtown, but also as a project it elevated the standard of what is acceptable for public projects in this community. I think the combination of the library expansion, the Grand Wayne Center and Parkview Field… there is a level of excellence in those facilities that I believe raised our expectations. There were a lot of people who walked into those spaces for the first time and said “wow, I can’t believe I’m in Fort Wayne.” I love the idea that we’re moving the needle as far as what we think this community deserves.
But, going back to your original question about future projects… There will be incremental future projects. But right now, we can’t afford to do anything else — we maxed out to do that project (Harrison Square), and that’s the part I think was short sighted. When the public sector over-invests in a project, in some ways you are dooming it to long-term failure, because government is good at upfront capital dollars — going in, doing the big projects — but then we’re just terrible at ongoing maintenance. That is a weak spot for government and for public sector investment. The private sector has this built-in profit motivation. That’s what keeps a project self-sustaining, because when you have that incentive to be profitable year-after-year, then you are doing the things that keep a project or facility appealing and keep it relevant so it will continue.
At this point, I’m not going to say that there’s anything big from a public perspective that should be done. I think, for example, the North River is a long-term project. I think any future development should be done contiguous to the Harrison Square area, and build out from that. We’ve got a center of interest; we need to grow from there.
In a previous answer, you mentioned a lack of transparency on the part of the City with regards to Harrison Square and the Redevelopment Commission. Transparency in general is an issue that it seems every incoming administration says it’s going to tackle, but then seems to neglect. How would a Hughes administration handle it?
Part of it is the way you share the information online. I will say there are some elements of city government that are more transparent than they were, and some that still have a long way to go. I think the way they offer up the information on the city’s budget — they do it kind of in a big picture way, they don’t drill down into the details.
In my time both running the DID and on County Council, I’ve learned that you expose yourself to more criticism and you certainly invite more expressions of opinion when you make information available, but I think you also get a better end result. When you’ve heard all the voices that have a stake in the decision you’re making, then you’re going to come up with a decision that is truly more reflective of the best interests of the community as a whole.
I think sometimes elected officials and administrations get into trouble when they are trying to push through their agenda and don’t disclose information that may not be in favor of their agenda. I think you have to have full disclosure, and I think you have to be willing to take the lumps on it, you have to be willing to listen to people and take their opinions into account.
The gambling issue is a good example. It eventually came out where we as a city had spent thousands of dollars on these surveys, and they all came out with a neutral conclusion — there are pros and cons. Well, ya know, I could have told you that…
Beyond transparency, that’s about decisiveness, taking a stand. That’s what people expect of our leaders. That’s what I expect of my leaders. I’ll cite our governor. I don’t agree with Mitch Daniels 100% of the time, but I am comfortable that I almost always know where he stands on issues. I respect that quite a bit, and I aspire to be that kind of leader.
The Fort Wayne Community Trust and City Light Lease Settlement funds and how they should be spent — or not spent — have been a big issue this year, and a big issue in the campaigns.
I’m big on paying down the debt. I would like to see the City of Fort Wayne living on a cash basis and eventually being debt free. I feel very strongly that when you make decisions on a cash basis you are making better decisions, more sound decisions, because you’re not muddying the waters with the issue of finances. If we pay down the debt, that frees up operating capital on an annual basis. For example, our CEDIT funds. In 2009, the City got $23 million in CEDIT revenue. $11 million of that went right back up into our debt service. If you paid off just the loans tied to the CEDIT fund, you’d have another $10, $11 million annually to do projects with.
You and the other candidates have made debt and finances a cornerstone of your campaigns. The other week, you participated in a forum sponsored by the Allen County Right to Life, Coalition for a Better Fort Wayne, and the Indiana Family Institute that touched on some social issues that the mayor doesn’t necessarily have influence over. Is talking about those issues important, or is it a distraction?
For the people that attended the debate, the entities that hosted the debate, they see a candidates opinion on those issues as a benchmark for moral integrity. They are well aware that there is a minimal amount a mayor can do to effect the outcome of those issues. But there are people in this community who will vote soley on whether a candidate is pro-life. And actually, my faith and my perspective on those issues has always been a very private part of me. One of the challenges of this campaign has been openly discussing what I have considered to be private, closely held values.
But I wouldn’t say it’s a distraction, because people are entitled to make their voting decisions based on whatever they want to make their voting decisions on. I don’t have to answer the question. But for some people, that is how they make their decisions, so I am responsive to that. Certainly I have nothing to hide in that area, and I answered with all the integrity I have.
Do I think those issues are turning point issues for the future of Fort Wayne? Not directly. I do think that it is important to have a leader that has a moral integrity and whose values align with the community’s, but no, other than maybe calling attention to some issues, the mayor really can’t impact most of the things that were discussed that evening.
My perception is that your campaign seems to have been a little more aggressive in differentiating yourself from your opponents.
That’s deliberate. Elections are about differences. In a Republican primary, there should be similarities — we are all running as Republican for mayor,. But for the people on my campaign, we’ve tried to be very clear in establishing my campaign from the other Republicans, and at the same time defining the differences between what my administration would look like and a Henry administration (would look like). Both things are compelling to people who are going to vote on May 3.
You can find out more about Paula Hughes at paulahughes.com