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Porter County Council attorney to give opinion on unapproved poll books purchase; budget tabled

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The Porter County Election Board is having its vendor, Election Systems & Software, step up training for election workers this fall which they hope will remedy issues with the new electronic poll books, but County Council members continued their opposition Monday.

The board has purchased 84 e-poll books and only 15 have been paid for, the Council learned during second reading of the board’s 2016 budget. The election board proposes to use $130,000 for the purchases next year after failing twice to persuade the Council to transfer $40,000 to pay for the first installment.

The Council has rapped the board for buying the machines without prior approval by them or the Board of Commissioners.

County Clerk Karen Martin said purchases of election equipment were made without the Commissioners or Council’s approval by previous election boards.

Council attorney Scott McClure was given copies of the contracts for the 69 poll books purchased prior to the May primary and said he would look over the logistics and make a report on Thursday at the Council’s budget adoption meeting.

Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, said he’s anxious to hear what obligations the County is held to under the contract. He and others on the Council want to know if ES&S has lived up to its end of the contract.

Election Board President and Republican member David Bengs said ES&S has shown great commitment in assisting the board on a daily basis, while Democrat member J.J. Stankiewicz said he thinks the board “bought a pig in a poke” and urged that the contract put up for bids next year.

“We are dealing with a beta version of this system. We’re being experimented on,” he said.

Both Democrat and Republican Directors in the Voters Registration Office, Kathy Kozuszek and Sundae Schoon, reported varying degrees of problems occurring now with the poll books in early voting, such as jams with printers. Schoon said she’s “not happy” but is optimistic the problems will be solved after workers are trained to use the poll books. Kozuszek said she’s favored ES&S in the past but alleges now that “they don’t know our laws.”

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, said the voters want to have a “fair, adequate sound system” when they go to the polls and she doesn’t believe the poll books are “user friendly.”

Bengs said the report from the Voting System Technical Oversight Program found no internal problems with the poll books and said the technical issues are the fault of poll workers and that’s just part of the learning curve.

“If you want to have success, you’re going to put the effort in to make it succeed,” he told the Council.

Martin and Bengs said they would like to have one poll book per precinct next year, which is a presidential election, plus 12 additional in case of emergencies, bringing the total to 135 poll books.

No one on the Council spoke in favor of purchasing more e-poll books. Council member Jim Biggs, R-1st, urged that the board not obligate the County to any more purchases until the system has been evaluated.

Others, like Council member Robert Poparad, D-at large, argued the situation is “a can of worms,” no matter how many times Martin and Bengs claim that the move will save money for the County. “There are flaws in the system,” he said.

Discussing just how votes get recorded, Schoon and Kozuszek said absentee ballots that are mailed in are stored and sent to their respective precincts on Election Day. The votes don’t get counted into the poll book right away, they said. The votes are entered manually into the state voter registration system which counts the votes through “a smart update,” they said.

“With all those moving parts, I can see how there would be problems,” Biggs said.

But Martin said the discrepancy of ballots cast versus voters recorded was reduced from 330 to 35 in the May primary results once the absentee ballots were inputted and that was a smaller difference than the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Moving to a whole new system is going to equal a lot more costs, Martin added.

Council member Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, blasted the board for contracting with ES&S for the poll books without the Council knowing about it and then leaving them on the hook to pay for it.

“To not consult this body when obligating us to a very large cost is just fundamentally wrong,” Rivas said.

Martin in turn shot back saying she feels it’s wrong for her “to be chastised over every action taken” while she has cut $388,000 from her budgets.

The Council took no vote on the budget’s second reading. Whitten instructed his peers to wait until McClure makes his report on the contract on Thursday.

Animal Shelter director raise

In other matters Monday, the Council approved on second reading a $14,000 raise for the director of the County Animal Shelter in hopes that interim director Toni Bianchi, a registered animal behaviorist, will take the job next year.

Bianchi is currently being paid out of contractual services, not the director’s salary, the County Auditor’s office said. The proposed salary increase is from about $46,000 to $60,000 annually.

Bianchi suggested the raise herself, saying its closer to what other shelter director salaries are and would attract a more qualified individual. But the Shelter’s total salary line item for 2016 is less than this year’s with the elimination of an assistant director position.

Biggs said the request is reasonable considering the Shelter will be moving to a larger facility and he wants to see more improvements. He said he’d vote for it if Bianchi would consider taking the job.

Rivas supported the move with some hesitation, saying the salary is more than what most elected officials make.

Commissioner Jeff Good, R-Center, said having Bianchi is “a two for one deal” because the Shelter requires the services of an animal behaviorist.

The Council approved the budget’s second reading 7-0.

GIS

Meanwhile, the Council is considering having the County’s GIS technician’s $45,000 salary be shared among various departments that utilize the service.

The position was put in to the Plan Commission’s budget after being paid out of the Auditor’s budget for many years. Plan Commission Director Robert Thompson expressed concern about whether his budget could support the cost given the decrease in revenue from building permit sales, although the Commission will be increasing its fees starting Jan. 1 which should bring in about $75,000 more in revenue. He hopes to have someone full-time to work the front counter.

Rivas suggested the salary be divvied up among the departments that have a need for GIS mapping, such as the Assessor ‘s and Auditor’s offices.

The Council will take up the matter at their meeting on Thursday which starts at 5 p.m.

County Auditor Vicki Urbanik, after the meeting Monday, said the Council is still within their $37 million target for the general fund, currently at a total of $36.3 million. That does not include however many of the proposed salary raises or the Election Board budget, she added.

 

Posted 10/27/2015

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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