City Council asks: Did Indianapolis visit violate economic development group’s no-lobbying pledge?

Eric Doden, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc. for the past three years, is stepping down effective Dec. 31. (File photo by Kevin Leininger of
John Crawford
Russ Jehl

Two years ago, City Council temporarily withheld half of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s annual $250,000 subsidy until officials with the economic development organization made it clear they did not use public funds to lobby government officials — and would not do so in the future.

Tuesday, however, council members are expected to question GFW representatives about a recent meeting in Indianapolis between GFW’s CEO Eric Doden, 2019 Republican mayoral candidate Tim Smith and at least one representative of the law firm Barnes and Thornburg of Indianapolis. “The council will ask if GFW was undertaking political activity in Indianapolis,” said Russ Jehl, R-3rd, who in 2016 had claimed GFW officials had used tactics that were “aggressive, bordering on intimidation,” in an effort to persuade council members to vote a certain way.

“We don’t want our economic development group to be a partisan organization. We want economic development to bring the community together, not divide it,” Jehl said.

Two years ago, then-GFW Board President Ron Turpin offered an apology for any misunderstanding and restated GFW’s insistence that it does not use public funds for lobbying purposes.

That’s still the case, insisted Doden, who said he introduced Smith to the law firm because he was asked to do so and such introductions are part of his duties.

“Med Pro (the medical insurance company for which Smith works) is an investor (in GFW,) and if I can help build the economy, I’ll make introductions,” said Doden, who in May announced plans to step down at the end of the year. The meeting, he said, was not a lobbying or fundraising activity even if Smith seeks funds from the firm later.

In addition, Doden said, his salary is not subsidized by money from the city or any other public source.

“I’m 100 percent privately funded,” he said. GFW comprises both the Economic Development Alliance, which receives public support, and the Chamber of Commerce, which does not. Doden said his salary is paid by he Chamber.

Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, who will challenge Smith in next year’s GOP primary for the right to challenge Democrat Tom Henry in the fall, said he was aware of the meeting and was eager to learn more details. By implication, he said, Doden was representing GFW at the meeting.

Tuesday’s discussion could take place in the context of council’s review of the city’s proposed 2019 Community Development budget, which may or may not be affected by details that emerge. Reauthorization of GFW’s annual subsidy, however, won’t come up until spring 2019.

Henry and Crawford are both on GFW’s board of directors. If they ever ask to be introduced to anyone, Doden pledged, he would be happy to oblige.