IN Focus: Fact-checking the Indianapolis mayoral debate

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- In what might be called the ultimate campaign fact check, State Sen. Jim Merritt apologized to Joe Hogsett in the final debate before Tuesday’s mayoral election for misleading information the Republican put out last week concerning the mayor’s history of paying child support.

“When you referred to this unfortunate error that we played it is obvious that we’re all held accountable,” Merritt told FOX59’s Dan Spehler during the debate in Wayne Township. “My campaign did put this information out on the internet about this mayor and, Mayor, I very much regret that and I send my apology to you and I’m accountable like we all are in politics.”

Standing just to his right on the stage, Hogsett acknowledged Merritt’s apology.

“Just simply let me say I’m proud of the campaign that we have run. It has been positive throughout. We have stayed focused on policies and certainly not allowed any personal interaction and that’s how I’ll campaign through Election Day.

“I’ve known Jim for 40 years. He’s a good father and I pray that he has never to answer questions from his kids about what they’ve seen on the internet about their dad.”

And with that, the 45-minute three-way mayoral debate, including Libertarian Douglas McNaughton, was on.

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Hogsett began by taking credit for fulfilling a campaign promise to add a net 150 new officers to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) and predicted the city may see its first year-to-year reduction of violent crime.

IMPD’s 2018 violent crime reports, as published last month by the FBI, show a four percent drop from the year before.

“We had three record-breaking years of murder,” said Merritt, referring accurately to IMPD’s 2016-2018 homicide statistics but neglecting that 2019’s homicide totals year-to-date are down. “When someone says crime is down four percent…we’re six officers short in each district.”

IMPD does not have a proscribed number of officers that should be assigned to each district.

McNaughton applauded a recent decision by Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears to not prosecute minor marijuana possession cases and the libertarian suggested decriminalizing other crimes.

“We can go further because this keeps the black marketeers which cause a lot of this crime out of the city, it makes Indianapolis not an attractive place for a black market,” he said. “We also need more outreach at the high school level.”

Merritt criticized current IMPD Chief Bryan Roach, whom he vows to replace if elected, for his operation of the department.

“Why are we having massive retirements? Most of a police officer’s day is paperwork. They’re driving around in sometimes 10-year-old cars with a lot of miles on them. Half the cameras on the streets are broken that help them prevent crime. We had a mass shooting downtown and we didn’t use the swarm effect. They don’t feel supported. The morale is down. If they had better training and better equipment and better recruitment we wouldn’t have the massive retirements we have today.”

As hundreds of IMPD officers have passed their 20-year mark on the department, they become eligible for retirement incentives and, as veteran officers at higher pay scales leave the department, the city can afford to hire younger officers at lower starting salaries and in larger numbers.

IMPD has struggled, as many departments have across the country, with implementing a dispatch, reporting and records management system after several years of missteps under Hogsett’s predecessor, Republican Greg Ballard.

Hogsett’s elimination of a chronic $50 million budget deficit has allowed IMPD to purchase new patrol vehicles though some older vehicles with high mileage have been retained as pool cars or for assignment to reserve officers.

The city operates approximately 90 surveillance cameras and many are inoperable and in the process of being replaced by 30 new cameras to provide current or additional coverage.

Merritt has called for a “swarm” effect which would bring officers from across the city to sweep through a neighborhood in the wake of a fatal shooting.

During the most recent downtown shooting when six people were injured, several dozen officers were on patrol and responded immediately.

“We have a lot of officers who come into IMPD because they want to work somewhere else,” said McNaughton. “They come here to put in their time and as soon as they’ve done that, they’ve transferred out to the department they want to go to. I think that is something in the department that needs to change. I don’t know what that is.”

“We have initiated implicit bias training that is part of an IMPD Training Academy curriculum,” said Hogsett. “I’m glad to see the last two or three recruit classes that we have added to IMPD have been more gender diverse, more racially diverse, frankly more comprehensively reflective of the city that it serves.”

IMPD’s last five recruit classes have been made up of 67% Caucasian, 21% African-American and eight percent Hispanic attendees.

“This will be, I believe, the first time in our history the civilian police merit board will be majority minority protecting the rights of all citizens of our city,” said Hogsett, referring to the five women and minority members of the seven-member board.

IndyGo has recently released statistics that claim that more than 230,000 passengers rode the new Red Line for free during September.

That averages out to nearly 7700 riders per day though IndyGo has predicted that once passengers start paying it expects 11,000 people a day to ride the north-south route.

“As mayor, my job is to keep Red Line clean and keep it safe. That’s what the mayor’s job is,” said Merritt. “Mayor Hogsett rushed the Red Line into operation.”

IndyGo is a semi-autonomous municipal corporation that draws its budget from City County Council appropriations and is overseen by a Board of Commissioners that was responsible for construction of the Red Line.

Hogsett took a neutral stance on the 2016 referendum to provide IndyGo with an independent source of tax revenue.

“We have congestion and we have confusion,” continued Merritt. “That has hurt folks, constituents, businesses along College Avenue. We can’t repeat that with the Blue Line.”

Hogsett agreed with Merritt that Red Line construction delays should not be repeated as IndyGo moves forward with other route service enhancements.

“As we think about the Purple Line and the Blue Line, I do think we need to learn lessons about the design and the construction from the Red Line,” said Hogsett. “We need to apply those lessons as we prepare and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.”

McNaughton said other construction should be halted until the Red Line, which has yet to collect its first paying fare because of service and ticket system delays, is fully functional.

“I would propose we get private enterprise more involved in our public transportation,” he said. “There are cities with a bus system run privately. We already have a bus center at the Julia Carson Center so we’re already halfway there.”

IndyGos’ Julia Carson Transit Center is located in downtown Indianapolis and is a centralized stop and transfer site for buses.

In response to a viewer’s question about abandoned housing across the city, Hogsett said that he’s reached his goal of renovating, selling or tearing down 2,500 structures in Indianapolis.

In fact, FOX59 visited one home that Hogsett highlighted a year ago today that appears virtually unchanged and unoccupied after the city assisted the new owner’s acquisition at 129 North Linwood Avenue.

On Wednesday, after several years of litigation, the city tore down the abandoned and dangerous Oak Tree Apartments at 9012 Pinehurst Drive North on the east side.

“It’s a complicated issue that involves landlord tenant property rights, out-of-state landlords who purchase properties in our community and once they gained the tax benefits from them, they simply don’t invest in them anymore, so it is a complicated set of circumstances,” said Hogsett whose campaign has criticized Merritt’s track record in the state senate on tenant’s rights issues. “I wish that the legislature in Indiana was a little bit more user friendly in terms of the rights of tenants, but we take things as they are given to us.”

“I will discontinue the mayor’s 2,500 abandoned homes project,” said Merritt. “As mayor, I will have office hours out in the community, I will have mayor’s night out, we will have data collection meetings, we will be knowing what is going on in the grassroots. It all just depends on what condition the home is when you talk about demolition or you talk about rehabilitation. I favor some of the communities around the country that have given homes to a firefighter, a police officer for a dollar, or a school teacher. Engage those in the community.”

“Here’s an instance where Eminent Domain does apply,” said McNaughton who, as a libertarian, is philosophically opposed to government intervention. “If you have a property that’s clearly an eyesore and it’s abandoned and the homeowner cannot be reached by reasonable means, the city only has a limited obligation to track down that homeowner until Eminent Domain applies, so this is an instance where the property can be seized.”

Merritt also said the city has fallen short of its goal of delivering municipal contracts to minority firms.

“Right now Marion County has a city county ordinance that says that 15% of all contracts with the city have to be with minority businesses. That is not happening. It's about 8% or so,” said Merritt whose lone TV campaign advertisement accused Hogsett of selling out to “political insiders” in the form of awarding “no-bid” contracts.

“We will also have lesser no-bid contracts,” said Merrritt in an attempt to level the playing field for minority contractors. “We have to have more people at the table when it comes to city funds.”

Merritt called for a dedicated toll lane of traffic along Binford Boulevard to raise road construction funds from suburban commuters.

Hogsett has floated a plan to seek funding from contingent counties where residents live while traveling to Marion County for work in order to fix roads.

McNaughton said the city should encourage residents to fix potholes on their streets privately.

You can watch the entire debate in segments:

Part 1: Public Safety

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Part 2: Roads and Transportation

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Part 3: Economic Development

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Part 4: Web Exclusive

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