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The Changing of the Guard
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
July 2013 will be a month remembered here for headline changes: Stafford retires; the Chamber folds and Greater Fort Wayne INC. takes its place, with Becker leaving the deputy mayor job to lead it; newcomer Ellen Cutter replaces Stafford; and, most amazingly, City Council changes stripes and overwhelmingly passes a tax increase. All of this against a backdrop of the most murderous month in living memory…
First, John Stafford has retired. He has been a fixture in local government since the 1970s and, consequently, as well as by dint of his own remarkable abilities to assess and explain to the meek as well as the mighty, has become the most trusted analyst in the area. His work could be said to have culminated in year-long Policy Review Group where he and City Controller Pat Roller laid out the fiscal problems confronting the city, with a collection of recommendations on how the problem might be solved. Stafford’s insights received rapt attention and accolades, rather than brickbats and dismissal, as could easily have been the case in such a charged situation.
As Mr. Stafford moves forward another fixture of a bit longer duration, the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce fades unceremoniously away. An organization that was seen as essential to the community in the 1920s through the 70s had begun to look a bit long in the tooth as early as the 1980s when the Chamber image became that of a self-serving, three-martini, old-boys club, while its raison d’etre, economic development, slowly, quietly was assumed by local government. Eventually, the Chamber could barely keep the lights on. Now, the once mighty organization has been subsumed into a new organization that is a combination of the Alliance and the Partnership, two tax-supported, quasi-Chambers look-alikes that advertise Fort Wayne’s virtues and then lavish new and existing businesses with tax breaks, government (taxpayer) grants, (taxpayer provided) incentives and open doors to more public “assistance.” Remember Kitty Hawk? They sadly are just as anti-employee as the Chamber.
Mark Becker, the highly respected and perfectly affable deputy mayor of Fort Wayne, will be the head of the new organization. A better man is hard to find. He knows this area exceptionally well, having working in economic development for the city, having worked for the Chamber, having been twice deputy mayor and having worked for the Northeast Indiana Fund. He and wife, Cheri Becker, a remarkable community leader in her own right, have done as much as any to fuel the renaissance of downtown Fort Wayne and the community.
Sadly, Mayor Henry, whose administration shined like polished gold during Becker’s tenure in the second chair, will now have to find someone of equal skill or better to keep the administration on a positive course. That will be tough. Leadership matters and Mr. Becker will transfer pictures of dog and wife to new digs by the middle of August.
Newcomer Ellen Cutter steps into Stafford’s position at IPFW with a strong background in community development. She is bright, strong, tough, well educated and well enough prepared to continue the research work that gave Mr. Stafford such a powerful and authoritative voice in any local policy discussion. Give her time to understand the town and someday other writers will sing her praises as we all do now for Mr. Stafford.
Mrs. Cutter has breathing room; the hardest public policy work of the past twenty years came to a climax at council table in early July with passage of two new taxes. For years Mr. Stafford has been educating council and the community on the vagaries of Indiana tax laws. Most recently, in the wake of the unforeseen consequences of the property tax cap, Mr. Stafford has been lecturing at the 600-level presaging Fort Wayne’s future. His work has won time for Mrs. Cutter to study local economic history; how the loss of Harvester impacted the city, how urban sprawl and laissez-faire planning have stretched thin the infrastructure, how Lincoln’s move, the loss of Magnavox, Bowmar, Zollner and many others all hurt the city.
That council had the guts to institute a tax raise should be the Journal’s or News’ story of the year on New Year’s Day. For the past thirty-plus years, since Bush senior said “no new taxes,” that oath has been de rigueur for politicians, regardless that costs to maintain streets, parks, infrastructure and myriad other services soared over the past quarter-century; regardless that the city doubled in size; regardless that the state cut the principle source of city finances. Regardless of those changes politicians continued to promise no new taxes whether it was the best policy or not, and it was not. Too few police, deep cuts in education, cuts in social services, cuts in the parks, cuts in street maintenance, cuts to the number of public servants and other cuts all took their toll on the quality of life in the city. Finally, the public caught on and pushed council to pass a tax hike, which they did with sweaty palms and homage to the selfish right. Credit should go to Stafford’s painstaking analysis.
Mr. Stafford will retire to a life of hotel rooms and flights as he becomes a prized consultant. Mrs. Cutter will soon become the go-to authority on local economic analysis. Let’s hope Mr. Becker makes GFI more than just another special interest club for the three-martini set. And, now that council has done the unthinkable, let us hope they join with Mr. Becker in deploying community resource for everyone, not just the rich, the well-connected and the powerful.