Mayor Paul Helmke: Unconventional wisdom
Mayor Paul Helmke has a history of reaching out to minorities. He recently appointed an openly lesbian woman to a city human relations commission. He’s a champion of annexation, a well-traveled proponent of cross-cultural understanding.
Ordinarily, this would be no big deal. But in Fort Wayne, a mid-sized, fairly Republican city in the conservative Midwest, Paul Helmke is an oddity. A Republican who has ruffled the feathers of the Indiana GOP, Helmke refuses to be typecast. And while his policies and actions may raise the occasional eyebrow, he remains wildly popular with the residents of Fort Wayne.
For despite the brush fires that inevitably break out, Helmke can boast a solid track record of success that bodes well for his role as USCM president: Fort Wayne has a rock-bottom unemployment rate (2.8 percent), low property taxes, innovative policing programs and a budget that is solidly in the black.
And, in an era when voter apathy seems rampant, this city of 195,000 people has put grassroots government into action with hundreds of citizens’ advisory committees and neighborhood activists. Four area partnership groups (each representing a quadrant of the city) hold individual monthly meetings to discuss the issues and mobilize support for important initiatives. Some neighborhood associations even have their own Web sites.
Fort Wayne’s community-oriented government was set up so that the neighborhood associations themselves are primarily responsible for problem solving. City officials serve more in the role of administrators responding to the wishes of their bosses – the people.
This bottom-up form of government instills in people the belief that their words and actions count for something, thus motivating them to stay involved, says Helmke.
“You can’t fight City Hall,” goes the adage. In the case of Fort Wayne, you could, but why would you want to? City officials have made it clear they will listen to residents’ input, take it into consideration and act upon it when necessary.
The mayor, police chief, public works director and many other officials regularly attend meetings of neighborhood and civic groups.
As Helmke’s Chief of Staff Greg Purcell explains, “When the residents get to know city officials better, they perceive us to be real people, not some amorphous, faceless governing body.”
In fact, community-oriented government has been a factor in the solution to the serious sewer problems that result when the city’s sani-tary/stormwater system, some parts of which are more than a hundred years old, is overwhelmed by rain.
After educating residents about the dire need for repairs, city officials charged local members of a sewer task force appointed by Helmke with finding a solution.
The task force has since pleaded with fellow homeowners to finance system improvements by supporting a change in the sewer rate structure that would result in many of them paying higher monthly rates. The city council was slated to vote on the measure in late May.
Knowing you have made a difference in the lives of city residents is extremely rewarding, Helmke says. “It’s what really invigorates you. It’s what gives you the excitement,” he says. “It makes you feel what you’re doing is worthwhile. Some people get into politics only because they like policy or programs. To me, liking people is the lifeblood of politics.”
Helmke was born and raised in Fort Wayne, a vintage Midwestern community with tree-lined streets, an historic county courthouse and hard-working, church-going residents.
The town is named for U.S. Army General “Mad Anthony” Wayne, who, in 1794 chose the site to build the area’s first American fort after defeating the Miami Indians.
Given the chance, Helmke will talk at length about this and other events in history – his favorite subject.
Helmke comes from a lineage with politics in its blood. His grandfather served as chairman of the Allen County Republican Party, and his father was a state senator. Both held the office of Allen County Prosecutor. Helmke treasures his memories of animated conversations with both men about famous American politicians. A collection of campaign memorabilia displayed on Helmke’s office wall is testimony to his fascination with politics.
His successful track record has prompted many to speculate that he may run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated next year by retiring Republican Dan Coats.
THE EARLY YEARS
When Helmke took office, the city’s cash balance was a paltry $74,000, and its utilities were awash in red ink. He immediately set about trying to put the city on firm financial footing.
In 1988, in the first step toward restoring accountability, Helmke created an internal audit department and two years later helped establish an audit committee comprised of five members of the community.
That internal audit department recently discovered that the city was entitled to about $400,000 more than the state had given it from gas and cigarette tax revenues, based on a formula that includes street mileage, population and other data. The state, which had used outdated Census Bureau figures in determining the allocation, agreed.
Helmke also pushed for the County Option Sales Tax in 1990 to help fund property tax relief through a homestead exemption and initiated the County Economic Development Income Tax to help repair streets and pay for neighborhood capital improvement projects.
Helmke’s aggressive annexation policy continues to be one of his administration’s hot button issues. Since he took office, about 22 square miles have been legally approved for annexation, which will eventually increase the city’s population by 35 percent. Helmke strongly believes annexation is needed to improve efficiency and relieve city residents of subsidizing services used by non-residents.
He has also championed privatization of several services such as data processing and has reduced the number of employees entitled to use city-owned vehicles. Additionally, he has worked with Allen County, the Army Corps of Engineers and neighborhood groups on a river widening project intended to alleviate the flood threat posed by the Maumee River.
Every politician knows all too well that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and Helmke is no exception. Although he received strong support from Fort Wayne’s black voters in the last election, some blacks criticize the Helmke administration’s track record on economic development and law enforcement.
They charge that development focuses more on the northern sections of the city than on the heavily black south side.
Too, allegations of police brutality and harassment against blacks pop up occasionally, and the mayor has vowed to root out any bad officers, whom he says are few in number. He also promised steps such as installing video cameras in the cars of officers identified as repeat offenders and disciplining, transferring or changing the duties of these officers.
The police department’s mission statement specifically mentions that residents’ quality of life can be improved not just through the deterrence of criminal activity, but also through “an understanding of the diversity of cultures within this community.”
To combat potential excesses, in 1991, Helmke initiated civilian oversight of the police department with the appointment of three citizens – none employed by the city – to the Board of Safety. And four years ago, Fort Wayne embarked on a community policing initiative designed to improve relations between police and residents and nip problems in the bud rather than let them fester.
Police officers are assigned to work with all the city’s 200 neighborhood associations, and each association has a “neighborhood liaison officer” who regularly meets with the association president to discuss and resolve problems.
Bicycle patrols and a program that allows officers to drive marked patrol cars home when they are off duty have both helped increase police visibility in the neighborhoods.
“The goal is to solve problems as close to the problem as we can get,” says Police Chief Neil Moore. “We value problem-solving as a part of the overall (crime-fighting) strategy.” But many officers have apparently discovered there is a fine line between being an increased presence and engaging in harassment.
The city’s crime rate has declined by 23 percent in the last eight years, according to Helmke, but getting there has not been easy.
“I don’t think the (black) community is satisfied with the mayor’s efforts or the efforts of Chief Moore,” says one black professional.
Moore’s boss, Public Safety Director Payne Brown, is black but, like Moore and Helmke, has not managed to escape criticism for moving too slowly to resolve departmental problems.
But Helmke’s former chief of staff, Sharon Banks, also black, contends that the mayor may appear to move slowly only because, as an attorney, he has an analytical mind and wants to be sure he’s doing the right thing when he does take action.
Banks, now an administrator with the Fort Wayne Community Schools, says Helmke’s outreach to minorities is genuine. “When he was growing up, he would take African-American friends swimming at the country club,” she says, noting that this was frowned upon by many of the club’s members in the early 1960s.
Rev. Mike Nickleson, a black minister with whom Helmke has established a relationship, lauds the mayor for his willingness to put the police issues on the table and work toward a resolution.
But he says the police department’s cross-cultural training has not been highly effective because the officers who need it the most are the least likely to be open-minded about taking heed.
He also notes that the administration must deal with two police unions, so disciplining officers is not always easily accomplished.
Nickleson has joined others in calling for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate alleged incidents of police brutality.
PARTNERSHIPS IN ACTION
Relations between the police and residents are often a major topic at neighborhood partnership meetings, along with topics like annexation and sewer rates.
Recently, Helmke demonstrated his political agility as he skillfully navigated through these issues at a Northeast Area Partnership meeting. After a busy day at City Hall, he attended the evening meeting to speak briefly to the approximately 40 people on hand and answer a few questions. He congratulated them for their involvement in helping get state legislation passed dealing with the abandoned vehicle problem. “Let’s give ourselves a hand,” he said. He also touched on subjects like privatizing emergency medical service, an anti-annexation bill in the state legislature and sewer repair plans.
The next morning, as April snowflakes swirled outside a ninth floor conference room window, Helmke presided over a monthly “Breakfast with the Mayor” meeting with local business entrepreneurs. Sitting at the end of the table, Helmke described how he benefits from those gatherings. “It’s my chance to get an early warning signal on what’s going on out there,” he says. “You can read all the statistics and reports you want, but it’s not as good as talking to people.”
Later that morning, Helmke conducted his second news conference in as many days, this one to announce formation of an internal task force to review proposals to provide maintenance services for city fleet vehicles.
The mayor has to be media savvy, since Fort Wayne has four network affiliates, two daily newspapers and a weekly black-owned newspaper.
The city’s news media are constantly scraping for news, and Helmke is more than happy to oblige them. Indeed, special track lights were installed on his office ceiling to accommodate TV camera operators.
SPOKESMAN FOR CITIES
Helmke sees his role as USCM president as being “a spokesman for the cities across the country at the national level.” He says the most critical issues facing cities include public safety issues – reducing drug trafficking and ensuring safe streets, for example; stemming declining investments – in people, infrastructure and schools; dealing with the ramifications of welfare reform; and working to expand and improve policies, like Enterprise and Empowerment zones and lower taxes, that will breathe new life into the nation’s cities.
“A lot of the battles are now going to be happening at the state level,” Helmke says, noting that the federal government is delegating more autonomy to the states in areas such as welfare reform, Medicare and Medicaid. Consequently, cities and counties will need to be unified in lobbying their state legislatures.
Meeting municipal officials from across the nation offers the opportunity to learn from other cities as well as to share Fort Wayne’s successes, says Helmke.
Getting a fresh perspective is something Fort Wayne officials have had the opportunity to do for several years through the Sister Cities program. Three sister cities – in Germany, Poland and Japan – have helped Helmke to broaden his perspective, he says. “Too often we think of things only in our terms. Sometimes it pays to step outside the box and re-examine our problems from a different perspective.” Helmke estimates he has traveled to at least 20 countries.
The mayor stresses that cities themselves are more important than people realize. In many instances – including Fort Wayne as well as much older cities such as Moscow and Rome – a city predates the state or country in which it’s located.
Helmke also believes that a prosperous core is essential for the health of a metropolitan area. While some would maintain that downtowns are an anachronism from the horse-and-buggy era that have outlived their usefulness in an age of mega-malls, branch banking, cellular telephones, fax machines and the Internet, Helmke disagrees.
“People are social creatures,” he says. “They’re always going to want to interact, and many of the things they like to do are in the city – cultural attractions like the symphony, theater, museums and festivals.”
If crime and blight overtake urban centers, everyone pays the price, says Helmke.
“We will all pay through increased costs in law enforcement, welfare, remedial education and social services and an inability to attract and keep good employers in our community. Perhaps even more frightening, we will all pay by denying citizens access to the American dream.”