Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

County Council and RDA face off in Jasper County court

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

The battle between the Porter County Council and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has gone even further, all the way to Rensselear.

RDA Chairman Leigh Morris and Executive Director Bill Hanna were present for Monday’s three-hour-long hearing in Jasper County, along with three members of the county council on the opposing side of the issue. Both parties gave legal arguments before Jasper County Circuit Judge John Potter, who is now taking the issues under advisement.

The county and the RDA have been in dispute since the April 8 county council meeting last year when the council voted 4-3 to withdraw from the development agency, which was created under legislation passed on the last day of the 2005 Indiana General Assembly.

Porter County officials opposing the county’s membership in the RDA contend the agency has not lived up to its vision to carry out projects such as extending the South Shore line into Lowell and Valparaiso. The council filed a lawsuit in August in the hopes of resolving the legal issues over whether the county can withdraw from the RDA. The council’s suit also argued against legislation that passed in last year’s General Assembly that gave municipalities the power to use the county income tax to stay in the RDA even if the county withdrew.

The council was represented by attorney David Honig of the Hall Render firm in Indianapolis, who presented the argument that the council’s decision to leave the RDA is legally feasible based on the 2009 statute. Honig said that the wording in the ‘09 law indicates that state lawmakers gave the county the option of withdrawing from the RDA.

County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, who was not present at Monday’s hearing, said over the phone that more money has come out of Porter County than what has come from the RDA, despite the RDA’s claim that Porter County has invested $12.5 million with a return of $17.2 million. He also said he hopes taxpayers take note of how their money is being spent and that the council will continue to stick to its position to leave the RDA.

“We’re going to keep pushing forward and be a voice until it all clears off. That’s all there is to it,” said Whitten.

Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, said not all members of the council are opposed to the RDA, which she said makes the legal battle more complicated. Blaney voted for Porter County to depart the RDA but said she does not feel resentment for the members who are in favor.

“I have a lot of respect for them, but I just don’t get (the legislation),” she said.

Blaney was one of the three council members present at Monday’s hearing. The other two were Sylvia Graham, D-at large, and Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, both of whom also voted to leave the RDA along with Whitten.

Blaney said she was impressed with how well both the council and the RDA presented their arguments. The fate of the outcome is now left to Judge Porter, who is expected to give a ruling within a few weeks.

The Indiana Attorney General’s office provided legal representation for the RDA. RDA Attorney Dave Hollenbeck, who also previously served the county council for 33 years, requested not to be included in Monday’s arguments.

Thomas Fisher, solicitor general for the Indiana Attorney General’s office, said the attorney general’s office holds the opinion that under state law, the county was only eligible to receive benefits from the RDA but that the law does not mean that the county had the approval of the lawmakers to leave the RDA.

Fisher said the RDA’s role with Porter and Lake counties is permanent. He said, however, LaPorte County was given the option to join the RDA and would have also been permanently bound if it had agreed.

The attorney general’s office issued an opinion in September that said the county was mandated to join the RDA and therefore does not have the option to pull out. Fisher said if the county wanted to leave the RDA, it would need to convince state lawmakers to modify the legislation.

The judge will also need to decide on what is to be done with a partial settlement agreement signed by Porter County Auditor Jim Kopp and Former Porter County Treasurer Jim Murphy in which they agreed to honor the council’s request to stop making payments to the RDA and place the money in an interest-bearing escrow account until the judge gives a ruling. County Attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger, representing Kopp and Murphy, asked the judge to uphold the decision.

Hanna said he hopes the ruling comes as quickly as possible so the RDA can continue its initiatives to improve Porter County.

Hanna said the RDA has recently approved $1.8 million for the Gateway to the Dunes initiative in Porter. He said the agency approved the money on the basis of honoring its statutory obligation despite the lawsuit with Porter County, and that the RDA recognizes projects like lakeshore development are regional initiatives.

Hanna said that even if the RDA wins the lawsuit, it would be a hollow victory.

“It undersells what the RDA is really about,” he said. “We bring some real value to the table and that is what the story really is.”

The RDA has been visiting councils around Porter County to discuss the benefits of the RDA. Valparaiso, Chesterton, Porter and Burns Harbor have all shown strong support for RDA initiatives.

Hanna said he will be meeting next with the Portage City Council on Feb. 2.

 

Posted 1/26/2008

 

 

 

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