Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard reflects on 28 years in office
Brainard looks back on service as mayor
CARMEL, Ind. (WISH) — Jim Brainard is still finding mementoes he forgot about long ago.
There’s the business card holder from one of his predecessors. A helmet from the Carmel Fire Department. A book by the architect of The Palladium, part of Carmel’s performing arts center. Countless plaques and other commemorations. A rug, handcrafted by a Middle Eastern immigrant, which will remain behind for his successor.
For the past 28 years, Brainard has been the mayor of Carmel. After seven terms in office that made him one of the longest-serving mayors of any city in the state’s history, Brainard chose not to run in the 2023 elections. At the end of December, he will turn over the keys to his office to his successor, Sue Finkam.
A roundabout path
Brainard had never held public office when friends suggested he run in 1995. He won, succeeding mayor Ted Johnson. At the time, no mayor of Carmel had served more than two terms, and only Jane Reiman had served more than one.
“I had a goal of getting reelected once and doing it for eight years,” he said. “But we were always in the middle of a big project. And we were having fun. We were getting to build this brand new city. And so I kept doing it.”
Brainard said when he took office, voters told him they wanted a downtown. He decided to pursue one with cross-streets spaced close together to encourage walkability. Around the same time, he attended graduate school in England and came away impressed by roundabouts. The roundabouts became a signature policy item for Brainard. His office said the city now has roughly 140, more than any other city in the United States. City data show Carmel averages roughly two fatalities per year per 100,000 people on its streets, compared to 11.5 per 100,000 in Indianapolis.
“They have absolutely been worth the investment. Based on national averages, we’re saving at least 10 lives per year,” he said. “We know it’s much better for the environment. Millions of tons of carbon has not been emitted because they’re so much more environmentally friendly. Cars are not sitting there idling at a stoplight.”
A red city goes green
Environmental issues such as the roundabouts’ carbon savings have long been a Brainard priority. During his time in office, he signed orders requiring the city to buy hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles whenever possible and setting up a methane-recapturing system to power the wastewater treatment plant. He said mixed-use development has reduced the need for people to drive, and adding parks has given the city more green space.
“I haven’t met anybody yet of either political party who wants their family to drink dirty water or breathe dirty air,” he said. “This is where we live, and we all have a duty to leave the Earth a better place than we found it.”
Brainard, a longtime Republican, said he’s disappointed by the Republican Party’s recent opposition to environmental initiatives. He noted President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed multiple landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol that banned chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, that were damaging the ozone layer.
In a similar vein, Brainard said he’s disappointed in today’s divisive, nationalized nature of American politics. He said civil discussion is essential for a healthy, functioning democracy and he fears the American experiment will fail if Americans don’t relearn how to respectfully disagree with one another.
“There’s a whole class of people today that make their living on keeping people angry with the other side,” he said. “We need to move away from that, take a close look at how that money gets to these various organizations that keep everybody so polarized, and maybe get rid of some of those tax exemptions.”
Controversy and regrets
Carmel faced several racial discrimination lawsuits during Brainard’s time as mayor. A 2019 I-Team 8 investigation found police ticketed Black drivers at a disproportionately high rate. Last year, the city’s first equity director was fired two months into the job under circumstances he said were discriminatory. Brainard said he believes much of the criticism leveled at Carmel for its treatment of minorities stems from incidents that happened decades ago.
“Today, Carmel is 25% nonwhite, welcomes people from every race, background, religion, place of origin, and I’m proud of that,” he said.
Asked if there was anything from his career he wishes he had done differently, Brainard said he wished he had moved faster on some of his ideas, such as for an Eagle Creek-style park on the south side of town. Despite that, he said he is happy with the results he has gotten.
Advice for the next generation
Finkam will not be the only new mayor to take office on Jan. 1. Scott Willis will be sworn in in nearby Westfield. Deb Whitfield will take the reins in Lawrence. Brandon Sakbun, Stephanie Terry and Ronald Morrell Jr. will take office in Terre Haute, Evansville and Marion, respectively. Brainard said his best piece of advice for all of these new mayors and more is to read everything they can about urban planning. He said that is the single most important job a mayor has.
During Brainard’s tenure, Carmel’s population quadrupled from roughly 25,000 to about 102,000. As growth shifts to other places such as the city of Westfield or the town of Brownsburg, Brainard said, those localities will have to invest in the infrastructure necessary to support it, including water, sewer and electrical service.
“No one wants to live in a place that doesn’t have good streets, good water system, good sanitary sewer system, a good park system. All of these things need to be prioritized and in place,” he said. “And you have to spend money to be able to do that but if you do it, you’ll attract growth and the tax rates will stay low.”
As for anyone considering public office, Brainard said, they should run for the right reasons.
“Don’t do it to see your name in print because some days it won’t be positive,” he said. “Do it because you care about the place you’ve chosen to live, the place you’ve chosen to raise your family and start your business.”