Indianapolis had an unusual municipal government structure as of 1967. A nine-member city council, known as the COMMON COUNCIL, was elected at four-year intervals by a hybrid district/at-large system that reflected the importance of parties in Indiana politics. The major parties slated six council candidates, with one candidate from each of the city’s six council districts. These 12 candidates appeared on an at-large ballot at the general election, with the top 9 vote-getters constituting the Common Council. This system guaranteed each party at least three council seats. In addition, slating procedures adopted informally by the parties generally ensured the election of at least one African American council member. A separately elected city clerk, with responsibility for maintaining municipal documents and records, doubled as secretary to the Common Council.

Indianapolis also had what municipal government textbooks call a “strong office-of-the-mayor.” The MAYOR was separately elected for a four-year term and possessed appointment and veto powers. However, from 1913 until 1963 Indiana law barred the mayor from seeking reelection, which weakened the position politically. Many, if not most, local government functions were performed by the nine TOWNSHIPS in Marion County or by 16 independent, special-purpose municipal corporations governed by boards over which the mayor had limited appointive powers and even less control.

In the municipal elections of 1967, Democrat John J. Barton became the first mayor in Indianapolis history to seek reelection after serving a four-year term. Barton had strengthened the office during his term, proposing reforms to enhance its appointive powers and creating the mayor-appointed GREATER INDIANAPOLIS PROGRESS COMMITTEE (GIPC) to help set and mobilize support for the city’s agenda. Barton’s opponent in the 1967 mayor’s race was a GIPC member, Richard G. Lugar, also a prominent figure on the INDIANAPOLIS PUBLIC SCHOOLS board. Lugar defeated Barton to become only the third Republican elected mayor of Indianapolis since 1925. Republicans also captured a majority of the Common Council seats. Thus, Republicans held majorities on the city council and the county council at the same time.

Most previous accounts of the creation of Unigov have emphasized Richard Lugar’s role in light of the high visibility of the mayor’s office. As a member of GIPC and the school board, Lugar had taken an interest in reforming local government. GIPC had supported a strengthening and territorial expansion of the Mass Transit Authority, which passed, and a county-wide consolidation of police and fire services, which withered under vigorous local opposition. Lugar had suggested that the 11 public school districts within Marion County be combined but dropped the idea upon seeing the intensity of public disapproval.

However, a strategy for city-county consolidation was developed primarily by an informal group organized and convened by Marion County Council President Beurt SerVaas. SerVaas had been a founder and treasurer of the Republican Action Committee (RAC), a reform group within the local party. SerVaas gathered other RAC members, including Lugar, RAC chairman John W. Burkhart, Indianapolis Common Council President Thomas C. Hasbrook, Marion County Republican Party chairman L. Keith Bulen, and John Mutz, and added Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Carl Dortch. This group met throughout 1968, usually at Burkhart’s home, to discuss the pros and cons of city-county consolidation and strategies for its adoption. SerVaas also raised the funds needed to hire local attorney Lewis C. Bose to compose a memorandum exploring the legal dimensions of metropolitan consolidation. Noting the absence of a local home rule tradition in Indiana and the state’s complete legal authority over local government structure and powers, Bose observed that consolidation could be taken through the Indiana General Assembly without either a state constitutional amendment or a local referendum.

Such an approach brought favorable outcomes in the 1968 elections for state offices strategically important for consolidation proponents. Lugar campaigned energetically around the state for Republican legislative candidates. Bulen delivered the Marion County delegation at the 1968 Republican state convention for gubernatorial candidate Ed Whitcomb, who won the Republican nomination for governor over Indiana House Speaker Otis Bowen and Purdue University dean and professor Earl Butz. As the state elections neared in the fall of 1968, Lugar named a 40-member GIPC Governmental Reorganization Task Force (with a smaller executive committee) to further refine the consolidation strategy and formally recognized Bose’s role in recruiting the legal talent needed to compose a consolidation statute to be introduced in the Indiana General Assembly’s 1969 session. Bose appointed an 11-member Lawyers’ Task Force, headed by attorney Charles Whistler.

On November 5, 1968, the morning after election day, Indianapolis Republicans awoke to find their party in charge of the Indianapolis mayor’s office, the Indianapolis city council, the Marion County council, the Marion County delegation to the Indiana General Assembly, both houses of the General Assembly, and the governor’s office. Whitcomb had been elected governor, and Republicans held 73 of the 100 seats in the State House of Representatives and 35 of the 50 seats in the Senate. All 8 state senators and all 15 state representatives from Marion County after the 1968 election were Republicans. Lugar went public with the consolidation plan, and two months of intensive legal and political work ensued.

The Governmental Reorganization Task Force executive committee members built upon the core of the consolidation strategy developed earlier by the informal group. City and county legislative and executive bodies would be combined into a single strong council and a single countywide chief executive. Related municipal functions would be grouped into a minimal number of administrative departments under the chief executive’s direction. Special taxing and service districts would be employed to provide municipal services over different areas within the county. The reorganization model devised by the Task Force acquired the name “Unigov,” for “unified government.”

In reality, the reorganization was considerably less than “unified.” The informal group, anticipating public sentiment as well as legal and practical considerations, had excluded several elements of local government from consolidation, and the executive committee followed suit. Opposition to any merger of the 11 local public school systems, or of the city’s police or fire departments with the county sheriff’s department or the township fire departments, kept these elements out of the consolidation. The township system was left intact, including the system of providing poor relief through the office of township trustee. 

The incorporated cities of BEECH GROVE and LAWRENCE and the town of SPEEDWAY would not be absorbed by the new municipal government, although their residents would be allowed to vote for the countywide executive and council. The county offices of assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner, prosecutor, recorder, sheriff, surveyor, and treasurer would be retained, since (save for the assessor) they were provided for in the Indiana Constitution. Merging or eliminating them would require a constitutional amendment, a time-consuming process that could delay and potentially derail adoption and implementation of the reorganization. And Further, 6 of the 16 independent municipal corporations providing local government services within Marion County would remain independent—the CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT BOARD, the CITY-COUNTY BUILDING AUTHORITY, the HEALTH AND HOSPITAL CORPORATION, the INDIANAPOLIS AIRPORT AUTHORITY, the INDIANAPOLIS PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION CORPORATION, and the INDIANAPOLIS-MARION COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY.

By mid-December, 1968, the Task Force had produced the outlines of its reorganization plan. Action shifted to the Lawyers’ Task Force, with the responsibility for crafting legislation in time for the Indiana General Assembly session beginning in January. Each member of the Lawyers’ Task Force took an element of the reorganization, with Whistler and Bose assuming the task of integrating those components into a single bill. Their efforts yielded a 162-page “Act concerning reorganization of government in counties containing a city of the first class,” which was introduced in the Indiana State Senate as Senate Bill 199 (Borst) on January 21, 1969. After early Senate committee hearings revealed some of the proposal’s technical defects and political opposition, a revised draft of the Unigov bill was introduced on February 4 as Senate Bill 543, with Representatives Eugene Henry “Ned” Lamkin Jr. and Morris H. Mills cosponsoring the legislation in the House. County Council President SerVaas and Mayor Lugar lobbied the legislators on behalf of the Unigov bill.

There was substantial opposition to the Unigov legislation on several different grounds. Democrats nicknamed the proposal “Unigrab,” objecting to the obvious partisan advantage to be gained by the Republicans in shifting the electoral base of Indianapolis government from the city to the entire county. Many of Indianapolis’ African American residents shared a similar concern about the dilution of their community’s political influence if the population were expanded to include 250,000 mostly white county residents. Opponents also objected to the absence of a voter referendum provision in the Unigov legislation, believing that since annexation would have required approval in a referendum, so should consolidation. Others were concerned about the post-Unigov status of the several incorporated and unincorporated communities within Marion County. Likewise, public officials and residents of adjacent counties were wary of a “consolidated colossus” in the center of the metropolitan area that might soon cast its eye upon their communities as well, since Indiana law permitted municipalities to annex territory beyond county boundaries.

Supporters addressed some of these objections through refinements of the legislation. A  “MINIGOV ” amendment authorized the simultaneous empowerment of neighborhood- and town-level governing boards to preserve some community identity and autonomy within the county. Another provision blocked the new “Consolidated City of Indianapolis” from annexing territory outside Marion County. These provisions deflected the concerns of suburban Republicans in and around Marion County, and kept them from joining Democrats and Blacks to present a unified opposition to the bill.

Supporters were not, however, willing to accept an amendment requiring a voter referendum on Unigov. A referendum provision could have been added but was not required under Indiana law. Indiana retained the “Dillon’s Rule” legal doctrine with respect to local governments: local governments are creatures of the state and may be created, enlarged, contracted, merged, or destroyed by the legislature without regard to the preferences of the local residents. Unigov’s supporters, therefore, technically did not have to place the issue before the voters. Moreover, supporters were concerned about the likely outcome of a referendum. In the candid appraisal of State Representative Robert L. Jones Jr. (R-Indianapolis), proponents of Unigov opposed a referendum because “at the present time it would be defeated.”

After the Unigov bill passed the Senate by a vote of 28 to 16, attention focused on the prospect of a referendum amendment during the bill’s consideration in the House of Representatives. Representative Lamkin, the floor manager for the bill in the House, maintained Republican cohesion to defeat Democratic attempts to add a referendum requirement during the second reading of the bill in the House on February 27. A tense week followed as Speaker Bowen, whom Marion County Republicans had denied the gubernatorial nomination in 1968, tantalized opponents and supporters with the possibility that he might refuse to hand the bill down unless he could be assured that a majority of Marion County residents favored it. On March 5, the last day that legislation could pass, Bowen handed the bill down for the third reading, but without his endorsement. The vote, 66 to 29, closely followed party lines in the House. Governor Whitcomb signed the legislation on March 13, 1969, to become effective on January 1, 1970.

On January 1, 1970, the five-member Marion County Council and the nine-member Indianapolis Common Council merged to form an interim CITY-COUNTY COUNCIL (composed of nine Republicans and five Democrats), and Richard G. Lugar assumed the post of mayor of the Consolidated City of Indianapolis. This arrangement was maintained until the municipal elections of 1971, in which Marion County voters reelected Lugar and chose the first 29-member City-County Council. That mayor-council structure provides the core of the political leadership of the Consolidated City to the present.

A friendly “validation suit” was brought in the name of Dortch, the executive vice president of the Indianapolis CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, to ensure the Unigov legislation against an anticipated future stream of legal challenges. The suit, Dortch v. Lugar, 24 Ind. Dec. 357, 266 NE2d 25 (1971), raised numerous possible arguments against the Unigov act. On January 26, 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the validity of the consolidation. Thus, Unigov became the first major city-county consolidation to occur in the United States without a voter referendum since the creation of Greater New York in 1897.

With the adoption of Unigov, local elected and business leaders accomplished many of their intended goals. They reorganized and streamlined a complex system of jurisdictions and city and county departments and agencies. They expanded the size of the city to encompass the entire county, thereby increasing the city’s population and expanding the city’s tax base. They enhanced the prospects for economic development by beginning the revitalization of the city core and attracting businesses that would replace declining industries. They also solidified the Republican Party’s political power, dominating local government for the next three decades. Lastly, supporters argue that the architects of Unigov essentially laid the foundation that led to the city’s fiscal stability and high bond rating, its acquisition of an NFL franchise and the development of a high-quality sports infrastructure, its heightened profile nationally and internationally, and its reputation as a hospitable, philanthropic, and livable city.

Since its implementation in 1970, Unigov has served as a case study for students of government and urban policy and for dozens of communities that have considered, or are currently considering, the adoption of a consolidated form of local government. The lessons learned from the Indianapolis experiment—both positive and negative—may assist other communities in working towards a more efficient and effective government to serve their own publics. A key question remains, however, is whether the complexities of Unigov will stand the test of time and whether the system will be able to adopt best practices and structures to address the many challenges that will certainly face the Consolidated City of Indianapolis and the region in the years to come.   

Revised October 2021

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