Government transparency and civic engagement are the primary messages underpinning the campaign of West Lafayette mayoral candidate Zachary Baiel. The independent candidate prides himself on blurring the line between dedicated community member and politician.
It makes sense, then, that he articulated his vision to improve city government between interactions with customers at the West Lafayette Public Library's book sale.
The 18-year resident announced his candidacy over the summer, mounting a half-year campaign that has sustained itself on face-to-face engagement and grassroots involvement with groups such as the New Chauncey Neighborhood Association and the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. The candidate said a lack of energy in the municipal races and several uncontested city officials compelled him to challenge the incumbent, West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis.
On his campaign website, Baiel describes modern government as a “labyrinth of bureaucracy,” feeling that its complexity prevents citizens from fully benefitting from its services. A current accessibility issue he cited is the city’s official website.
“You can’t find certain things, the search is horrific, you can’t filter in certain datasets,” Baiel said. “There’s some small improvements where — yes, we’re releasing some data — but it’s hidden, or it’s tucked away in this deep corner where you have to know to go to that corner to get it as opposed to just having it available.”
The government should not stop at simply releasing data, Baiel said, but should be a steward that proactively promotes information for maximum public access. That way, intrigued citizens can avoid the web of interdepartmental communications that may overwhelm the average person.
Working in the IT department of the West Lafayette School Corporation for 11 years equipped Baiel with an understanding of how to effectively cater technology to specific occupations. In his view, that experience will benefit a city government that is currently underachieving in its use of the internet.
“We’re not effectively using the internet now, we’re not effectively using social media now. We see countless meetings not posted,” Baiel said. “No meeting summaries are given, no one’s saying, ‘Here’s what’s on the agenda for today, city of West Lafayette.’”
Baiel emphasized that his plan to make data accessible wasn’t for its own sake, but to allow members of the community to monitor significant decisions.
He cited the recurring issue of officials seeking public input after major decisions have been made instead of genuinely involving constituents in each phase of the process. He attributed this lack of timely engagement to issues cropping up around State Street development, forms of alternative transportation and climate change action.
An avid bicyclist himself, Baiel expressed frustration over a recent bicycle safety ordinance that he said was created without serious input from the community. Adding to the conflict was what he called "a lack of public dialogue" around the introduction of electric scooters on the Purdue campus.
He expressed the need to evaluate whether scooters, bicycles or other alternative modes of transportation could be incorporated into the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Organization, the company that operates the CityBus system and other forms of mass transit.
After the city council unanimously passed a resolution to “reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency,” Baiel focused his attention on the phrase “non-binding.” Without periodic access to data collected on emissions and energy usage, he worries about the public’s ability to ensure promises are being delivered.
“You have to provide accountability measures for those citizens that are excited about this,” Baiel stressed. “You just said, ‘Hey, we did something great for you, but you won’t be able to hold us accountable for two years,’ because the first report won’t be released until November 2021.”
Baiel was critical of the city’s aggressive strategy for developing State Street, saying that it’s allowed for the creation of problems that may have been avoided with due diligence in researching potential developers.
He targeted The Hub on Campus as a company that consistently exhibited problematic behavior in other cities before building in West Lafayette. The Hub, a complex known for its expensive luxury apartments, delayed move-in by five days after failing its final occupancy inspection. Building on that, tenants have complained about unfinished construction and security issues, the latter of which culminated in a rooftop shooting involving non-tenants who gained access to the building.
“I think it’s no coincidence that residents were not being actively, aggressively solicited for the downtown plan,” Baiel said, referring to the conversations leading up to the State Street project. “It’s apparent both the Area Plan Commission and the city don’t really want a lot of input.”
Baiel said his belief in the power of grassroots organizations to effect change and bring awareness to important issues is steadfast. His intention as mayor is to be a “connector, facilitator and problem-solver.” He said having access to all aspects of the community would offer an opportunity to help local groups by partnering them with relevant departments to assist them.
As president of a group devoted to promoting open government, Baiel said he’s experienced being stifled by officials seeking to do the bare minimum. In making a plethora of public records requests and attending city meetings where he says his speaking time has been undercut, he’s experienced frustration about government's aversion to the proactive education of citizens.
“There’s the minimum bar of legal procedure, and then there’s good governance,” Baiel said, indicating a higher bar with his hand held over his head. “Too often we fall short of good governance. It shouldn’t be about hiding behind excuses why certain things aren’t done.”
If a government cannot successfully reconstitute a policy decision, Baiel argued, then the decision should never have been made. He said his vision as mayor is to equip the public with the necessary information to intelligently engage and hold its city government accountable.