FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) — ABC21’s latest Digging Deeper report has received the attention of people across the City of Fort Wayne, including the man vying to be its next mayor.
The online magazine “Input Fort Wayne” and its relationship with the mayor’s office is drawing sharp criticism from Republican challenger Tim Smith.
“It takes a little bit of work to scroll to the bottom and see the logos and connect it all. I don’t think the average reader of that or most websites takes the time to do that.” said Smith.
Kara Hackett, the Managing Editor of “Input Fort Wayne” told ABC21, “It kinda makes sense in my mind for the city to sponsor it. Why wouldn’t they want to be telling good stories about themselves and things that are happening?”
The City of Fort Wayne kicks in $6,000 yearly, which it points out is only 2 percent of “Input Fort Wayne’s” annual revenue.
“Well $6,000 is not a minuscule amount to an employee who could have otherwise gotten a raise. Or for part-time for any department with overtime. Or to fix one, five, or ten potholes,” said Smith. “Six-thousand dollars is a lot of money to me. It should be a lot of money to everyone in Fort Wayne. If it was six dollars, it is still tax payer money. The amount of money is not the issue. It’s how it was used and that it was not transparent.”
Columbia University journalism professor Raju Narsietti took notice of ABC21’s investigation.
Through it’s social media accounts, the City of Fort Wayne shares stories from “Input” that tout the Mayor’s initiatives as “successful.”
Narsietti warns how this can easily become propaganda in the absence of a critical lens.
“To think of this as being impartial, to think of this as not being very political, I think hides the fact that this funding from people currently in the administration,” said Narsietti.
“Because these are good news stories, and only talk about things going very well, they clearly reinforce the person or the party in power,” said Narsietti.
The spokesperson for the city, John Perlich, does not agree with this assertion.
“I don’t see these articles as being political,” said Perlich in an interview with ABC21 prior to the initial report. “This is simply an organization who approached us and said would you be interested in being part of this effort to promote your city, county and region.”
So what’s the big deal?
“Well the big deal is businesses don’t spend taxpayer money. That’s it! That’s the distinction that matters. Elected officials are held to the highest possible standard because it is our money, the taxpayers money,” Smith said.
When we asked if the city’s use of “Input Fort Wayne” is transparent, John Perlich responded “I don’t know what your definition of transparency is. So I can answer that question if I have a better understanding of what transparency means to you.”
ABC21 explained it is fair to ask the city to take a proactive approach in alerting the public about certain expenses. Especially if there might be something controversial about how the city is spending money.
“Well, we are one of several partners,” said Perlich.
Tim Smith says he isn’t satisfied with Perlich’s answers, and wants to hear from the Mayor himself.
“I saw your interview with Mr. Perlich. You asked tough questions. He was in a difficult position. I’m interested in hearing from Mayor Henry and not Mr. Perlich.”
ABC21 extended an opportunity on two occasions for Mayor Tom Henry to respond to the recent wave of criticism in an on-camera interview. Instead, Perlich sent a statement that reads
“We don’t have anything to add to what we shared with you during our recent on-camera interview. We stand by our collaboration with Allen County, several private and public organizations and Issue Media Group.”
That statement mentioned the county government, but a day after our initial report aired, Allen County Commissioner Nelson Peters – the official who initially signed the contract on behalf of the county in 2017, and again when the county renewed its arrangement in 2018 – has since become critical of both the site and how the mayor’s office is sourcing it.
“Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect, I really should have underscored the message that politicians should not dilute what I believe to be a good economic development tool for their own personal gain. Shame on the City. This is not what this product was intended to provide. If we choose to do another contract year, I will work to get language inserted that will support that notion, as well as to ensure greater transparency.” said Peters in a statement.