Chesterton Tribune



4 vie for 3 slots in Democrat County Council race

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In the primary election Tuesday, June 2, four Democrats--Incumbents Dan Whitten and Sylvia Graham and Challengers Susie Talevski and Kevin Cornett—will vie for three spots on the November ballot in the race for three at-large seats on the Porter County Council.

The Chesterton Tribune invited all four to participate in a candidate questionnaire. The Tribune set word limits and reserved the right to edit for length.

1) Age, place of residence, occupation.

Cornett: I am 64. Valparaiso resident of 25 years; Retired operating engineer.

Graham: I am a long time Porter County resident, currently living in Valparaiso; Retired Registered Family Nurse Practitioner.

Talevski: Valparaiso, Ind.; Attorney.

Whitten: I am 54 years young (depending on the day. Sometimes itís 54 years old). I reside in Porter Twp. I am an attorney with my wife Stacey at Whitten & Whitten, Attorneys at law, in Portage, Ind.

2) Challengers: Why are you seeking election to the County Council? (75 words)

Cornett: I understand the duties and responsibilities of the County Council, and because of my background, I believe I can add a different perspective to the Council.

Talevski: I believe that it is the duty of every citizen to be politically engaged, and itís important that citizens serve their community by serving in elected office. I intend to be the voice of the people and to advocate for the people. After all, the Council is the fiscal body of the County. That means they control the money, and that money belongs to the people. Iíll be a wise steward of all County money.

Incumbents: Why are you seeking re-election to the County Council? (75 words)

Graham: For the past 12 years, I have served on the County Council, helping to set budgets and be available to answer questions and address problems for constituents. Presently, I am the only female representative on the Council. My work is not done, and I still have the desire to serve. I feel my experience, knowledge, and commitment to the County will serve to help the next council.

Whitten: Through my time in the United States Army, years as a police officer, and time in office, I have spent nearly my entire adult life in public service. I take great pride in serving Porter County. I would like to continue the work we have accomplished and are still accomplishing for the residents of our County, and would like to think that I am helping make it a better and safer place to live.

3) Challengers: What specific skill sets would you bring to the Council if elected? (100 words)

Cornett: Having a construction background, I tend to look at things from a different view and ask questions that normally are not asked. I have the ability to build a consensus with people to make decisions to reach the best outcome.

Talevski: My most salient skills are my soft skills. I have a unique ability to empathize and sympathize with people. Iím genuinely kind, caring, and compassionate. I truly care about people. I also listen well. I intend on listening to the needs and concerns of the people of Porter County, and doing all that I can to meet those needs and concerns. I will use my advocacy skills to be the voice of the people in the County Council. Iím also very curious about seeking out new ideas and developing creative solutions to solve problems.

Incumbents: Describe your achievements in office. (100 words)

Graham: I helped bring the budget through the difficult recession days of 2009. I was also on the commission that brought 24-hour medical/nursing care to the jail. I voted to purchase the financial Low Software system, the new animal shelter, and voted to invest in County property renovations as well as replacing the faulty South Haven storm water system. I am a founding member of the Porter County Non-Profit Charitable Foundation. I voted to bring the new voting equipment on board as well as the new timekeeping system. Most importantly, I have worked to keep your County tax rate low.

Whitten: I was instrumental in creating the County Foundation, and implementing its bylaws and investment policy. Its creation has brought millions in earnings to our citizens. We are one of the most, if not the most, solvent counties in the state. We have built new facilities, improved on existing buildings and through such, have created jobs. During my time, we have built a new Animal Shelter, updated the Government centers in Valpo and Portage. We have updated the Expo Center and remodeled the Memorial Opera House. Honestly, the list goes on, but I am limited to 100 words here.

4) Challengers: As a citizen seeking election to the Council, what are two things you think the Council has done a good job of the past four years? Explain. (125 words)

Cornett: The Current Council has done a great job keeping spending in check, the budget balanced and our taxes low. Protecting the assets from the hospital sale has also been handled well.

Talevski: Construction of the new animal shelter was certainly a positive addition to our county. Also, I supported the Councilís approval of the mobile voting vehicle purchase that the Clerk of the Court requested.

Incumbents: As a sitting member of the Council, what are two things you think the Council could have handled better in the last four years? Explain. (125 words)

Graham: I feel we have been very successful working together as fellow Council members for the citizens of Porter County. We have supported investing and making improvements in our County properties along with roadwork and bridges. The purchase of the 157 Franklin Street building that was renovated to house multiple county departments. I have supported replacing the old, unreliable storm water system in South Haven. All of these actions added years of service to these buildings, while promoting job growth for Porter County.

Whitten: Honestly, I think we did a solid job. As I have stated in other questions, we have managed to create jobs, improve on buildings and build new facilities. All the while, keeping the tax rate low. Had the market not been such a roller coaster ride at times, we could have allocated more money to non-profits in our county. But, again, notwithstanding, we have provided assistance to many. Had we been given a crystal ball, we could have braced better for this pandemic crisis we find ourselves in. But unfortunately, we did not. It seems clear to me that the County is heading in the right direction, and things are on track to continue moving forward.

5) Differentiate yourself from your opponents and indicate why in particular you believe yourself to be the better candidate. (100 words)

Cornett: Being 64 and retired, I would be one of the oldest on the Council. I would have a lot in common with a large portion of the population in Porter County and able relate to their needs.

Graham: With my past experience in budgeting skills, I am prepared to continue serving another term in helping make the budgets. My attendance and voting record speak for itself. I answer phone calls and meet with constituents for discussions. I have been fiscally responsible, voting for balanced budgets and County growth that promotes job growth. I do not take County insurance and never have. I represent a minority, and work on the Plan Commission, NICTD board, NIRPC, PCACS, WM & Recycling, and the EMA. I am liaison to multiple county departments. I am retired and able to prioritize Council business.

Talevski: There are four people running in the Democratic primary for Porter County Council. Dan Whitten and Sylvia Graham have both served on the Council for a very long time. I think itís time for a change. Iíve never served in elected office, and Iím not a career politician. As a new Council member, I will bring new ideas, energy, and vision to the Council. In society, you need to have change in order to have renewal, rejuvenation, and revitalization. Also, Iím the most progressive out of the four people running. And frankly, this Council could use a progressive voice.

Whitten: As I state below, we all have our areas of strength. I have the experience of running County government. Additionally, I have extensive knowledge of municipal law. My wife and I have represented several municipalities over the years. That experience has given me the insight into the numerous legal issues that confront the Council. My years as a bankruptcy attorney have given me the opportunity to help many Porter County families through difficult times. This understanding of issues that families in our County face has given me a special understanding of the issues facing the whole County.

6) What are the key issues in this race? (125 words)

Cornett: Infrastructure. We must have an aggressive maintenance program for our roads, bridges, and drainage ditches. We also must maintain all the buildings owned by the County. We have all seen how important our health department is. I believe we need to enhance the Department and give it more responsibility and oversight in situations like we find ourselves in with Covid-19.

Graham: I think experience in county government should count more with this election due to the financial circumstances we find ourselves in. I will continue to remain fiscally responsible, keeping taxes low, while maintaining transparency in County government. If possible, I want to continue investing in projects that will promote job growth. Public safety, with drug prevention and rehab programs, is a must. Our roads must be maintained along with water testing to protect our ecosystem. It is going to take experience in knowing what line items in budgets can be cut and what line items in budgets cannot be cut.

Talevski: There are several key issues in this race, including jobs, infrastructure development, affordable housing, the health and safety of the residents our County. But all those issues pale in comparison when dealing with the current crisis. Now that we are living in the time of a world-wide pandemic, dealing with the coronavirus has become a top priority. Our leaders need to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the County. I am particularly concerned about our elderly population, especially those living in nursing homes. The County needs to make an investment in acquiring protective masks so that everyone can have access to masks irrespective of ability to pay. Also, I am concerned about all the economic losses due to the pandemic.

Whitten: This County is on the right track. We are improving on the quality of life for residents here. Great things are happening at the level of County government. I would like to continue with our work. I have the experience and knowledge of municipal budgets to continue the growth and projects, whilst continuing to keep our County tax rate low. The issues come down to this: Do people like the direction we are going? Weíve funded safe schools projects, done extensive upgrading of our drainage system, paved many miles of County highways, given public safety the necessary tools to keep the County safe, and used a part of Foundation earnings for social services such as Family Youth Services, Opportunity Enterprises, and Council on Aging.

7) What are your priorities for use of the funds in the Porter County Non-profit Charitable Foundation? (75 words)

Cornett: I would like to see a plan put in place where properly vetted nonprofits serving the needs of a segment of our population can apply for grants to fulfill their goals. I would also suggest that we look at dispersing some funds to the 12 township trustees to use for poor relief.

Graham: The next few years may be challenging, financially, for our county. We may need to compensate for the loss of certain funding. Examples of an expected loss will be our County road funds due to losses in gas taxes paid to the state, and losses of casino revenue funds that support our County drug task force team and employee longevity pay. Both are extremely important and just two examples of what could be ahead.

Talevski: The Porter County Non-Profit Foundation money belongs to the people, and as far as I know, none of it has been distributed to any of the Countyís many worthy charitable organizations. If elected to the Council, one of my main goals will be making sure that various Porter County-based nonprofits benefit from the profits from the hospital foundation money. The principal will always remain invested, but the profits need to be fairly dispersed.

Whitten: We need to continue using its earnings for the betterment of the County. We used some of the earnings for social services, but also used the foundation to promote growth for the County. It has been a mechanism to keep the County tax rate down, to ensure that we don't "tax families out of the county.Ē Managing a watchful eye on the investments is paramount in the shifting sands of the investment world these days.

8) In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, local government meetings, like many services, have suddenly gone virtual. This presents both an opportunity for local government to reach more of its citizens with the convenience of live-streaming and the potential for elected officials to suppress public input on and press coverage of local government actions. Explain what government transparency means to you and how you plan to ensure continued or improved transparency in our current time of uncertainty. (150 words)

Cornett: From what I have heard since government meetings have been put online, there has more people able to see the meetings. I would push to always have all meetings be made available online after we return to having meetings in person. The one thing I see that needs improvement is where the public can participate. We need to have their questions answered in real time.

Graham: I believe the public deserves government transparency with no hidden agendas. I believe government provides services for the people, and the people need to have the opportunity to be an active participant. I feel virtual meetings are okay in a crisis, but are stiff, due to fear of one person speaking over another and lack of open public discussion. I miss reporters on hand to report the flavor of the discussion and any input from citizens. If County buildings are open for business, I feel elected officials should carry out the peopleís business, as they were elected to do. We will be having our next meeting in the Commissionerís Room in the Administration Building, following the rules of the CDC, State, and Commissioners. I feel technology is a big part of our future, and glitches we are experiencing now will be worked out.

Talevski: I believe in 100% government transparency. I believe that every meeting should be live-streamed, COVID-19 or not. Citizens and journalists should be provided the ability to submit questions electronically. I support the right of the press and citizens to have full access to all government documents in an expedient manner. The government belongs to the people, and as such, public officials cannot refuse to answer to the people. Transparency, accountability, and accessibility are absolutely vital to a functioning democracy. I will support government transparency to the fullest extent. There are some elected officials in various levels of government who do not truly believe in the concept of transparency. They do all they can to put up roadblocks to citizens being able to freely access information. On the contrary, I believe only with full transparency can citizens hold their government accountable, and thereby, ensure the integrity of our democracy.

Whitten: This question will soon be out of date. The ability to conduct meetings remotely is coming to an end. The Governorís executive order only allowed them for a certain period of time. But whatever the time, and situation, being transparent and accessible is always a priority for me. The public has a right to know how their money is being spent. And, as elected officials, we have a mandate to keep them informed. I respond to the press timely and with honesty. I ask probing questions at meetings and discuss the facts openly. That is transparency. The back door dealings never end well for government. When the public isnít in the room when decisions are being discussed and made, it tends to get the short end of the stick.

9) Challengers: The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting precautions intended to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are having widespread negative effects on business and the local economy. If elected, you could be entering office during a nationwide recession. Explain how your approach to fiscal leadership would be different in good and bad economic times. (150 words)

Cornett: Because of good budgeting in the past, we are in good shape even though some of our tax collections have been delayed. The only thing we can do going forward is tighten our belts. A possible cut across the all departments may be needed.

Talevski: Our society is facing an unprecedented crisis at the moment. It is unclear to me how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, and specifically, how Porter County will be hit in the long-term. Certainly, we will face an economic recession, but we may suffer through an economic depression as well. In tough times, it is necessary to be more prudent with any discretionary spending. We need to make sure that County governmental services are running properly, but it might be necessary to prioritize services in order of importance. I am very concerned about the economic impact of the crisis on small local businesses as well as employees temporarily unemployed. As a County, we need to be ready to develop policies that will ease the pain of these difficult times. Now more than ever before, we need to manage the County budget more wisely than ever before.

Incumbents: The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting precautions intended to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus are having widespread negative effects on business and the local economy. If re-elected, you could be sworn in during a nationwide recession. Explain how your approach to fiscal leadership changes in good and bad economic times. (150 words)

Graham: Bad times: I believe the next Council may be working in a period of financial uncertainty. I have the experience of working through the recession of 2009. Initially, budgets were reduced by 10% and hiring freezes were not unusual. For a few years, raises were not given. County employees received a minimal bonus of a few hundred dollars. Already, in expectation of uncertainty, the Porter County Commissioners and the Council have issued a joint memorandum stating that a job freeze is in effect, now. Good times: I feel the past few years, Porter County budgets have been stable. I have voted for pay raises because we have balanced the budget and have had the money to do so. That is how I feel you retain good employees. I feel that is how one can build loyalty.

Whitten: I was in office during the last major recession. So I am no stranger to governing during a financial crisis. That having been said, this COVID has created a crisis of new proportions. Primarily my concern is the public health. We need to ensure that the public has access and information to weather this storm. But beyond that, government has to be mindful that many small businesses will be trying to recover. As a small business owner, I understand this daunting task that lies ahead. We have to be open minded, and invite all stakeholders in brainstorming the road ahead. I believe that conventional thinking may no longer apply. We are new ďnormĒ. We have to be willing to step up and provide the resources necessary to navigate through the recovery.

10) The Council is a seven-member board, which leaves room for a wide variety of personal beliefs and strong personalities. Explain what bipartisanship means to you and to what extent you believe that differences of opinion and compromise are parts of healthy bipartisan governance. (150 words)

Cornett: We all run based on party affiliation, but after the election, it is time to put that aside and work with your other Council members to achieve the best outcome for Porter County. If you want to be a successful member of the Council, you have to build a consensus with the other people on the Council. Being the newest elected, it would be up to me to learn how to do this as the rest of the body is already getting business done.

Graham: For the past several years, I have worked with members of both parties, sharing the same goals, with the County enjoying relative financial stability. Strong minds working together can achieve great things for the people they represent. Although from different political parties, the Councilís personalities have blended into friendship and respect. The proof is in the pudding, and we have been able to accomplish a great deal, adding capital projects that promote jobs, while balancing budgets and giving raises to deserving employees. Our Non-Profit County Foundation is intact. There may still be heated debate, and that is healthy, but constant bickering for the sake of having your name in the paper does not accomplish anything. That is what bipartisanship has accomplished in Porter County. With this, I am asking for your vote to continue this work.

Talevski: Bipartisanship means cooperation with those of the opposing party despite ideological or political differences. Iím an open-minded, progressive Democrat, but of course, I will cooperate with those who hold more conservative views than myself. I intend on being the advocate for the people. But I am well aware that the Council is a collaborative body. Cooperation, collaboration, and compromise solve problems. But if I see something blatantly wrong or unethical, rest assured, I will speak out against it. In general, Iím always looking for the best ideas. We need the best solutions to solve complex problems to ensure our County government is performing at the highest level.

Whitten: During my years of service on the Porter County Council. I have had the privilege of working with many different people. They have been both Democrat and Republican. I have found that whichever party a member has belonged to has not made a tremendous difference. We have all brought a different perspective from varying histories and backgrounds. Thatís the distinction. Not political party, but personal areas of strengths stemming from our personal experiences and areas of knowledge. Being bipartisan means avoiding petty political squabbles, to reach common ground, working toward the common goal for a betterment of our County. I look at my fellow elected officials not as a particular party affiliation, but more as what their strengths and wisdom can bring to a particular issue or project that is being contemplated by the Council.


Posted 5/27/2020




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