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KEVIN LEININGER: Fort Wayne’s ‘pay to play’ bill isn’t perfect, but for now it’s good enough

When Republican Mitch Harper ran for mayor against Tom Henry in 2015, he suggested the city was engaging in "pay to play." The tactic didn't work.
John Crawford
Kevin Leininger

As City Council debated the merits of a bill intended to curb the appearance of “pay to play” in municipal contracts last month, city attorney Carol Helton and local lawyer Scott Chinn urged members to vote “no” for various legal and practical reasons. A couple of weeks later, Chinn’s firm produced a five-page memorandum suggesting a legal defense would be both ineffective and costly.

But the way the bill’s co-sponsor sees it, that opinion from Faegre Baker Daniels epitomizes why council was right to deny city contracts to firms that donate more than $2,000 per year to candidates. According to John Crawford, R-at large, the firm donated $72,000 to Mayor Tom Henry’s campaigns and received $3.84 million in city contracts between 2011 and 2015. During that same period, Crawford added, another Indianapolis-based law firm that also questioned the ordinance, Ice Miller, contributed about $22,000 to Henry and received more than $450,000 in city legal work.

“This does not mean their opinions are necessarily incorrect. . . since the administration is their client, they would be expected to usually advocate for their client’s position,” Crawford was quick to point out. “But it does raise a question of possible bias.”

Precisely. Not even Crawford and co-sponsor Jason Arp, R-4th, claim to have evidence the city has inappropriately rewarded political contributions with contracts, and work awarded through competitive bidding is in theory at least immune to manipulation. But contracts for professional services such as legal architectural work are not necessarily awarded on the basis of the low bid, and the bill is intended to reassure the public to the fullest extent possible city contracts are not for sale.

Henry himself has said he supports that goal, if not the mechanism council has chosen to achieve it. Henry vetoed the bill after six of council’s nine members passed it in November, but the same six members overrode the veto last week, allowing the law to take effect next year pending any legal challenge.

And even if that happens, so what? As Crawford correctly pointed out, anything council does can be, and sometimes is, challenged in court. After Crawford persuaded council to pass the city’s first smoking for restaurants by a 5-4 vote in 1996, Mayor Paul Helmke vetoed the bill.

Council then voted 7-2 to pass the bill anyway, one more vote than necessary to override a veto. The city was eventually sued, but the bill drafted by council attorney Joe Bonahoom was upheld — the same attorney who is confident the pay to play bill will pass legal muster if necessary.

That’s no guarantee Bonahoom’s opinion will prevail this time around, but Crawford is also correct when he wonders why a company would sue the city in order to give even more money to candidates in charge of contracts. It just wouldn’t look good.

And that is precisely why the bill deserves a chance. Similar proposals have been upheld elsewhere, and with Americans more cynical than ever about government — often with good reason — voters need all the reassurances they can get. No bill is perfect, and surely people will look for ways around this one, too (Chinn suggested donors could simply contribute to political action committees instead of directly to candidates). But, contrary to the argument of some critics, the bill is not an unconstitutional intrusion of local government into political contributions.

It is, instead, an effort by city council to exert control over the very contracts it has authority to award.

Some have suggested the Republican-dominated council is trying to punish the Democrat Henry for being an effective fund-raiser. And, with Crawford considering a run for mayor in 2019 and his proven willingness and ability to fund his own campaign, that creates an appearance, too. Even so, the Crawford-Arp bill represents a worthwhile step in the right direction because, as Voltaire once observed and Crawford reminded council last month, a demand for the perfect really can be the enemy of the good.

And, without a doubt, it would be good for government at all levels to earn and deserve a greater degree of trust from those it is supposed to serve.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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