INDIANAPOLIS — Merging the city and county governments here helped improve what amounted to a scattershot set of public services, but it also diminished the political power of the Democratic Party, and traditionally Democratic African-American voters, in particular, for a generation.
The winners when the state Legislature combined Indianapolis and Marion County under one "Unigov" in 1970 were the city's suburban Republicans — typically wealthier and typically white — who were enjoying their recent sweep into majority status.
And especially diminished was the influence of African-Americans.
Before consolidation, African-Americans made up half of the electorate for the Democratic Party, which often held majorities in Indianapolis. After consolidation, African-Americans made up less than half of the electorate for a party that would become a minority for most of the four decades since.
"The old city core was primarily Democratic, and the suburban ring within the county but outside the old city limit was predominantly Republican," said William Blomquist, the dean of the school of liberal arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
"It really swung the balance of political power back to the Republicans," said Blomquist, a political scientist who has studied and published papers on the effects of Unigov.
African-Americans, meanwhile, "became a minority of a minority party, rather than half of the majority power," he said.
The Indianapolis experience offers a host of lessons that could be useful as Evansville and Vanderburgh County move toward consolidation. These range from the importance of the number of council districts and how those districts are drawn, to the dangers of a less-than-complete merger.
How it happened
In the 1950s and 1960s, the city government of Indianapolis was typically controlled by the Democratic Party, while the Marion County government was usually run by the Republican Party.
As the city expanded and as population in Marion County's suburban ring grew, attempts at annexation or expansion of one unit of government's influence into an area overseen by another often were stymied because neither side was willing to give up power.
That all changed after the elections that took place in 1966 and 1968.
One of their leaders, Beurt SerVaas, became chairman of the County Council. He recruited Richard Lugar, who was then a businessman and member of the Indianapolis Public Schools board, to run for mayor in 1967.
A split in the Democratic Party hampered its mayoral candidate, allowing Lugar to win that race.
Early in 1968, Republicans who now controlled both the city and county governments began discussions of a merger along the lines of Tennessee's Nashville and Davidson County "Metro" government.
Republicans such as Lugar argued consolidation was necessary because the governing structure of the city and county needed to be streamlined.
Before consolidation, Marion County had 60 governments, according to the U.S. Census of Governments: the county government, 23 cities and towns, nine townships, 11 school districts and 16 special-purpose municipal corporations, each of which was governed by its own board.
The election in November 1968 gave their cause a dramatic boost. Republican candidates won the governor's office, as well as control of both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly.
In the following 1969 legislative session, it was the state government, not local governments, that consolidated Indianapolis and Marion County. Lawmakers passed a "unified government," or Unigov, system.
It was a fairly comprehensive consolidation, but not as far-reaching as Nashville's Metro.
Unigov includes three branches of government — a mayor who is Marion County's chief executive, a 29-member council (with 25 districts and four at-large members) who serve as the legislative body, and a separate court system.
The city retained some of its independent boards, which are largely not influenced by Unigov: the Capital Improvement Board, Health and Hospital Corp., Indianapolis Airport Authority, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp., which is known as "IndyGo," and the Indianapolis-Marion County Building Authority.
Meanwhile, Unigov excluded four incorporated municipalities — the cities of Beech Grove, Lawrence and Southport and the town of Speedway.
Those places elect their own mayors and councils, but also vote in Indianapolis municipal elections and are represented on the City-County Council, because they pay taxes and receive services that extend to the entirety of Marion County.
There are 17 "included towns" in Unigov, most of which have ceased running their own local government operations, but a few of which still have town boards.
The county's nine townships, with their fire departments and poor-relief duties, were retained, as were the school districts in each township outside of the Indianapolis Public Schools system that covered the old city limits.
Also untouched by Unigov was law enforcement, as city police and the county sheriff's department continued operating as separate entities.
Power shift occurred
It is clear that Unigov led to a marked increase in political power for Republicans while decreasing the power of Democrats.
Lugar defeated a Democratic candidate for mayor in 1967. Unigov was adopted in 1970. Indianapolis would not elect a Democratic mayor until 1999 and would not hand Democrats a majority on the 29-member City-County Council until 2003.
Democrats subsequently lost the mayor's office in 2007, when Bart Peterson was defeated in his bid for a third term by current Mayor Greg Ballard. That year Republicans regained council control, as well, and hold a majority today.
That Republican council control comes despite the fact that Democrats currently hold, and traditionally held, all council seats within the city's old limits.
More alarming, though, is the decline in voter turnout.
That turnout drop was documented in a 1995 study by Blomquist and Roger B. Parks. In 1971, it was no surprise when Lugar was re-elected. But the 1975 mayoral election was expected to be more competitive — and it was.
The Republican candidate, William Hudnut III, won with 125,000 votes. The Democratic candidate, Robert Welch, drew 110,000 votes.
However, something changed in the four years before the next mayoral election. In 1979, 60,000 fewer people voted — yet Hudnut drew the same number of votes.
That trend continued in future mayoral elections. The Republican candidates drew vote tallies that consistently ran above 110,000, while Democrats seemingly resigned themselves to minority-party status and quit participating in mayoral races altogether.
"These voters did not leave the city, nor did many of them leave the voter registration rolls. Most of them continued to vote in state and national elections. They simply stopped showing up for municipal elections after 1975," Blomquist and Parks wrote.
As a particularly telling example of the shift in party power, they pointed to the 1991 elections. That year, the Democratic mayoral candidate and the party's council candidates carried every precinct of old, pre-consolidation Indianapolis. Meanwhile, the Republican mayoral candidate and the Republican Party's council candidates made up the difference and more on the outer edges of Marion County.
"Thus, Unigov's political effects could not be clearer," the two wrote. "Without it, the 1991 elections would have resulted in a Democratic mayor and a Democratic council; with it, the 1991 elections resulted in a Republican mayor and a Republican council majority."
So what would Indianapolis look like without consolidation? The population within the old city limits has shrunk from more than 422,000 in 1970 to less than 300,000 today.
Based on an analysis of U.S. Census data, the African-American population within the old Indianapolis city limits has decreased, while the white population has decreased by an even greater percentage.
Still, Unigov might have benefitted old Indianapolis as a whole, wrote David Rusk in a policy paper published in 1994 that compared the city to Cleveland and Detroit.
"The emergence of black political control in such territorially constrained central cities as Cleveland and Detroit reflected, in part, the abandonment of such cities by white residents, businesses, and investors," Rusk wrote.
"Political control achieved in the context of racial and economic isolation of the central city is often a bitter bargain. Black mayors of such cities usually have few assets with which to try to better economic opportunities and the quality of public services for black constituents."
Typically, Blomquist said, the more council districts there are, the better minorities will be represented. That, he said, is because some in of those districts, minorities will make up a majority of the population.
Blomquist said because the City-County Council in Indianapolis has 29 members, though all of Indianapolis' mayors have been white men, minorities are typically well-represented on the council.
That is also the case in Nashville, where the council has 40 members, community leaders there said.
Chrystal Ratcliffe, the president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said despite several majority-minority districts, she has no doubt consolidation diminished the African-American community's influence at the ballot box.
"Once we went under the full umbrella, it basically lowered our numbers," she said, referring to the African-American community's statistical size in Indianapolis once the city was merged with Marion County.
One specific complaint Ratcliffe has is that municipalities such as Speedway and Beech Grove have retained their own mayors and councils, yet also vote in Indianapolis mayoral and City-County Council races.
"We don't vote for their mayor or anything like that, but they still vote for our mayor, they vote for our city council people," she said, calling it unfair.
Furthermore, Ratcliffe said services within old Indianapolis have not improved as a result of consolidation.
"The way it was sold to the inner city was like it was going to be a wonderful thing for them and they were going to get better benefits out of it. It didn't. It gave the outer county a lot more perks than it did the inner city," she said.
"It was a political ploy."
She said her two biggest objections are the city administration's lack of focus on improving inner-city roads and changes that she said have left the county's police department less sensitive to the African-American community's concerns.
"We have a heck of an uproar on the things that are happening in Indianapolis right now," she said.
Ratcliffe said there is a strained relationship between the African-American community and a police department where the old city police force and the county sheriff's department were merged less than three years ago.
"That has been a big problem for us in Indianapolis," she said.
Overall, Ratcliffe said, consolidation was "just not a good thing for the city at all. It's not good."
Sticky spots after Unigov
After Unigov became a reality, there were two major pieces of unfinished business: schools and law enforcement.
In Evansville and Vanderburgh County, schools will not pose a problem because the county is organized under the single Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp.
That's a positive, because Indianapolis has still not provided any sort of blueprint to deal with its schools.
The Indianapolis Public Schools system, a district that serves an area roughly comparable to the pre-merger city limits, is among the state's lowest-performing. Its ISTEP scores are below those of the surrounding suburban districts. Its students are more likely to receive free or reduced lunch than those in the surrounding districts. Its graduation rates are lower than those around it.
Though state lawmakers felt merging the city and county government in 1970 was wise, they chose to keep separate a school system in which the townships surrounding Center Township at the heart of the city have their own school districts.
Many have complained through the years that because the richer suburban portions of Marion County are not served by Indianapolis Public Schools, problems in those schools have been ignored.
Indianapolis and Marion County, though, have come up with a solution for what they came to view as the problem of two sets of law enforcement leadership — the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's Department.
In 2005, the City-County Council approved the merger of the two into a single Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, or IMPD.
At the time of the merger, the metropolitan police department was led by the Marion County sheriff — at the time, Frank Anderson.
However, in 2008, after Republican Ballard ousted the incumbent Democrat Peterson, on a campaign based in part on reducing the city's crime rates, the City-County Council opted to transfer police department leadership to the mayor's office.
The council created a Department of Public Safety. The mayor appoints a Public Safety director, who in turn appoints a police chief to oversee the metropolitan police department.
Scott Newman, the first Public Safety director under Ballard, recommended that Evansville and Vanderburgh County follow suit. He said Americans hold mayors responsible for public safety.
"I think it is perilous for a city to go away from that kind of accountability in a city setting. It has been done, and reasonable minds can differ about it, and communities will differ," he told members of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Reorganization Committee earlier this month.
Anderson wasn't convinced combining the sheriff's department and the city police force would save money, said Kevin Murray, a counselor to the sheriff.
"It was hard to argue against the fact that you'd have a more efficient police administration if you just were concerned about the county boundaries and not those other boundaries," Murray said.
Anderson now oversees the jail, the security of city and county buildings, courts and more.
But what Murray called the "thorny issue" of whether an elected sheriff or an appointed police chief should oversee patrols and investigations, the sheriff lost out.
"There should be a referendum. Let the people decide this issue because it's too important to have this go back and forth," Murray said.
"At the end of the day, I think he's disappointed that the transfer occurred," Murray said of Anderson. "But as someone once said, elections have consequences."
The irony of consolidation, said Blomquist, is that as Indianapolis has become a regional hub and many of its residents have moved to places such as Greenwood and Carmel, outside of Marion County, history is repeating itself.
Democrats have grown in number, he said, while some of the Republican vote has moved into the surrounding counties.
"It's sort of where we were 40 years ago in that Democrats were trending toward a majority party in the city in the 1960s," he said.