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First year bombshells and big moves

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


Spring cleaning starts right after elections at city hall.

The old adage is true — during the first year of the four-year term, administrations take their most controversial steps. The second year is for planning, the third year for implementation, and the fourth year is “steady-as-she-goes” to insure re-election. That dynamic is already at work in Fort Wayne.

It wasn’t too long after Mayor Tom Henry won re-election that heads began to roll. Principle among the firings was the well-liked and respected Jim Howard, the most recent city purchasing director. In numerous appearances before City Council he took one bullet after another for the administration. To the casual observer he was 100% the Mayor’s man at the table. Only thing: Mr. Howard was and remains a conservative Republican. Perhaps that was the reason he was fired. Perhaps Mayor Henry feared a “mole,” or perhaps there was some significant error in Mr. Howard’s judgment that undermined the Mayor’s confidence.

Plans to fire Howard were certainly drawn up well before the election, but in the fourth year of an administration’s cycle, “rock no boats” is the M.O., so the gallows were not erected until immediately after the election.

And then there is the case of Bernie Beier, the City-County civil defense director, now titled, a bit excessively, the Director of Homeland Security. If there is anyone in local government who has spoken ill of Beier or of his work, let them come forward. So far, no one has. No one. Apparently, the move was just a matter of cutting costs. Apparently. The air raid warden’s job is to be transferred to the county’s budget. The City was dumped on by the County with paying for bridges, long a county budget line, so let them pay for the air warden. Something like that. Perhaps it is payback for irritations suffered during charge-backs at the Harry Baals Municipal Center. Perhaps it was just an example of judicious and practical cost cutting of the sort the Republicans constantly chant.

Again, a highly controversial move, and, certainly, had the administration tossed that hand grenade before the election, it would have cost hundreds of votes. Rock no boats, toss no bombs.

Then, shortly after the triumphal election the administration announced two more bomb-shells: major additional and “unforeseen” expenses at the new city hall, and a whopping water rate increase, both items the administration certainly knew about before the election, but chose, for whatever unexplained reason, to announce afterwards.

Had either item hit the fan in October, boats would have more than rocked — the Mayor’s re-election boat would have sunk to the bottom. Maybe Hans Brinker is a better analogy.

So, this year will be the year of putting things on the table, tossing bombs, rocking boats, taking lumps and musing over a latte that the public forgets the irregularities and inevitable controversies by early November 2015. Politicians understand: “Call me a lying ass in 2012, but I in three years you will forget.”

Here is one new controversy to expect – the North River Project. Since the beginnings of the Henry Administration the City has been searching for a way to develop the old Omnisource property just east of Clinton with a thousand feet of prime beach frontage on the majestic St. Mary’s. Over the years planners have envisioned a golf course, an extension of Headwaters Park, a casino-centric life-style development and a marina; but nothing, alas, has come to fruition, for a variety of reasons.

Over the past couple of years the city has been hustling developers to take the land and do something, please. Developers, including the Cordish Company of Baltimore, have been courted, but have not yet signed on to a “public-private partnership” in which a ton of your tax dollars and “incentives” will be laid at the feet of the developer to guarantee a successful and profitable (at least for the developer) project. Perhaps the deal is not yet sweet enough for the likes of Cordish, perhaps the market studies suggest that if they build it no one will come, perhaps the notoriously tight coterie of bankers who would also have to sign-on prefer to continue making money the old fashioned way, at the government tit.

But, if the adage holds true, this will be the year that Mayor Henry announces with his winning smile a deal with Cordish or another developer to turn the Omnisource brown-field into South Beach on the St. Mary’s. He will announce the financing as if it were nothing to worry about and then the fight will begin. That’s what first years are for. Present a big controversial project and hope the dust settles by re-election time, the fourth year of the cycle.

As cities go North River is a needed project and is supported in concept by nearly everyone in town; certainly by most, if not all, of the nine votes on City Council. They dream of wearing souvenir construction hats and wielding silver commemorative shovels. Let us hope, for the Mayor’s sake, that Cordish does not play Hard Ball with the city.

And, expect more than a few major moves downtown. New construction. A significant street diet or two. New decorations.

So, the first year of the cycle is the time to take bold steps – fire the beloved, reveal problems, announce meae culpae, take new bold steps and hope that by the end of the cycle most faux pas have been forgotten and the others have born at least some fruit to keep contract dollars flowing to the campaign. By then, the fourth year, in the Mayor’s third election campaign, rock no boats will be the M.O.

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