Chesterton Tribune

Commissioners back RDA appointment; Harper urges transparency

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

A week after the Porter County Council made the unexpected move of voting 4-3 to place local business operator Jeff Good as the county’s representative on the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority seven-member board, the Porter County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday decided 2-1 to ratify the vote.

Before a nearly ten-minute long statement given by County Commissioner President Robert Harper, D-Center, as to why he supported the council’s decision, fellow County Commissioner John Evans, R-North, who was present during the council’s vote, reiterated his opinion that council members were crossing the line with their decision to suspend the due process of taking applications for the appointment.

He said that Good may be the “right man for the job,” but said there were others like Valparaiso University President Mark Heckler who were interested in the seat and Evans told them to fill out an application first.

“The process is there for a reason. It’s finding the right person for the job,” said Evans.

Harper, in what may be his final public blow to the RDA which he has continually opposed, said that his involvement in selecting Good no way indicates that he is changing the way he feels about the regional organization.

Good is both a Republican and longtime supporter of the RDA.

“I think that those who try to analyze this appointment must realize that in both political parties, Porter County Republican and Democrat, there are those individuals who do not believe in passing tax after tax after tax,” Harper read in his statement.

All four votes in favor of the appointment came from Democratic members, including Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, while the council’s sole Republican member Karen Conover said the vote should be deferred.

Whitten said the choice for Good would probably “shock” some individuals but insisted that political affiliations did not play a role in their selection.

Harper pointed out the council’s two incoming members, Republicans Jim Biggs and Jim Polarek, both supported the council in appointing Good.

“There’s obviously some bipartisan support for this man’s appointment,” said Harper.

Like members of the council, Harper believes that members of the RDA board are becoming more secretive, political and less willing to make their ideas public by meeting in closed executive session. After meeting with Good, Harper believes Good carries the attitude to stand against “the nonsense of lack of openness” and will be able to share publically what RDA board is up to.

Harper’s Chore List

Although Harper will be leaving office in January when Republican Nancy Adams claims his seat, Harper gave Good a chore list based on the questions he has sought from the RDA and have gone unanswered:

• Request that the RDA finally make public the preliminary report prepared by the SEH engineering firm on the Gary/Chicago Airport. Harper asked why the members of the RDA would withhold such information when public tax dollars were spent to compile the report.

• Find out how the RDA intends to find support for the Regional Bus Authority without raising taxes.

• Put a halt to the recent string of executive sessions before each board meeting. Harper compared the situation as being similar to the time years ago when Porter Memorial Hospital was a county hospital and ran into financial hurdles during the time when it was conducting business frequently in executive session.

• Determine if the RDA is making good on their claim that Porter County is receiving more funds than it is contributing. If the RDA has promised more money than what they have to spend, ask what the agency plans to do with it.

• Ask if the RDA is going to keep funding the bus systems in East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond when they have additional dollars in casino funds pouring in that could also fund it. This year alone, Hammond collected roughly $40 million in casino money, Harper said.

• Ask the RDA if they are going to continue to support additional layers of government that could lead to additional taxes in Northwest Indiana.

“The people need to be told the truth,” said Harper. “If this organization is going to continue foster more and more taxes and more and more government, at least we should be told about it.”

Good this morning told the Chesterton Tribune Harper’s requests sounded reasonable and that the issues may be just a matter of clarification. He said that he doesn’t intend to shy away from the issues.

Good said his mission right now is to make the citizens of Porter County and everyone involved with the RDA feel more comfortable in knowing how their dollars are being spent.

A Flawed Appointment?

While voting no to appointing Good, Evans said Harper posed “all excellent questions” before restating once again his belief the application process needed to be obeyed. “This appointment will be flawed.”

Southern County Commissioner Carole Knoblock, a Democrat, said she knows Good’s qualifications and hopes the RDA notices them too.

The RDA released a statement last week saying it looks forward to Good’s involvement and will continue its mission in Lake and Porter Counties. It also mentioned its success relies on collaborative partnerships.

The commissioners’ vote also carried a motion to accept Olympidis’ resignation, who reportedly was not interested in returning to the panel.

The seat has remained vacant since the council voted 4-3 in April 2009 to leave the RDA.

Council attorney Scott McClure said Good’s appointment would not affect the legal status of the council’s pending appeal of a Jasper County judge’s ruling last April that the county does not have legal grounds to withdraw.

Oral arguments for the appeal are scheduled for Jan. 20 in an Indiana Appellate court.

Officials Ponder RBA Future

While future funding sources for the Regional Bus Authority have not even started to be discussed, certain members of both the council and board of commissioners have expressed concerns that the county will end up holding the bag.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, previously mentioned the Porter County Aging and Community Services held a grant agreement with the RBA whose sole funder currently is the RDA.

The PCACS board president signed a revised agreement in November that now carries a clause asking grantees to commit in assisting the RBA fulfill its goal of regionalizing and/or consolidating bus services in Northwest Indiana.

“It indicates things that make us tie into with the buses and services that maybe in ten years we’ll be obligated under certain rules. I don’t like that,” Graham told the Chesterton Tribune.

The grant agreement states the RBA is willing to provide $20,000 for a matching grant with the New Freedoms federal grant to expand demand response services.

RBA Executive Director Timothy Brown said the idea of the language proposed by the RBA board is to have some type of direct connection to those grant recipients on the objectives the agency wishes to get done related to regionalism.

“(The language) is awfully gray. It doesn’t have a lot of teeth. It just wants to get the discussion going,” said Brown.

With decreasing tax dollars in Hammond and Gary, Brown said that funding for transit systems is coming under fire. However, Brown says he truly sees the public transit systems are a component of economic growth and said public transit lowers the demand in food stamps, provides better aid to welfare costs and employment in general.

Harper said the V-Line and Chicago Dash bus lines have filed forms with the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission that show they will be short more than $1 million by 2015.

He sees that in order to keep these systems from shutting down, another tax will have to be passed and criticizes the RDA for not discussing how the bus systems are going to be financed.

Brown said there are many options that could be considered for permanent funding, not just a tax increase.

Referring to the results of last year’s failed referendum to create a Regional Transportation District and enhance the county income tax rate, Graham said the people have spoken that they do not want to pay for an additional tax on transportation. “That I feel is being overlooked,” she said.

 

Posted 12/8/2010