Chesterton Tribune

County council appeals RDA ruling with 5-2 vote

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All seven members of the Porter County Council met during a special meeting on Friday to decide whether or not to appeal Jasper County Circuit Judge John Potter’s order on April 9 that said state legislation did not give the county the option to legally withdraw from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, immediately made the motion to appeal the ruling.

Before taking a vote, Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, expounded on the argument that the state has continually made efforts to increase the county income tax, giving as an example last year’s referendum to create a regional transportation district that proposed raising the income tax up to 0.25 percent.

“I think this issue is bigger than the RDA,” said Whitten, who mentioned the fact that joining the RDA stripped Porter County of $15 million in toll road lease credit by the state legislation while LaPorte County on the other hand was given an option to join. “It about standing up and protecting local control.”

Whitten said he looked at the minutes from the May 24, 2005 council meeting, at which he was also present, and found the council’s motion contained two parts: to participate in the RDA and to fund the annual membership through the county economic development income tax fund. The council has argued that since they voted to join the RDA, they can also vote to withdraw, which they did 4-3 on April 8, 2009.

Potter’s order said that the council’s vote to join the RDA, or withdraw, does not have merit because the legislation that created the RDA made Porter County a member before the vote. The only discretion the county had was to decide whether or not use the CEDIT tax fund to fund its required membership payments, the judge ruled. Whitten questioned why so many spoke in lobbying the council to join the RDA before and during that May 2005 meeting if the county was already included.

Agreeing with Whitten was Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, who said it was the merit of the RDA they needed to be looking at with the appeal and also that the state legislation “singled out” Porter County which she believes is unconstitutional in Indiana.

“It’s fundamentally wrong,” she said.

Council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, who was not on the council in 2005 when the vote was taken although was present in the public audience, said she too thought the council voted to opt in.

As one of the three members who voted against leaving the RDA in April 2009, Conover told her peers the RDA should be given more time and that jobs created in Lake County would also be available for citizens in Porter County.

“We have blackened the eye of the RDA,” said Conover.

Conover also reminded other members of the council that a large proportion of the CEDIT tax that funds the RDA goes to homestead credit for property tax payers. She said if you are a Porter County resident making $50,000 a year, you are only paying $125 per year through that portion of the CEDIT tax.

Meanwhile, both councilpersons Marilyn Johns, D-4th, and Rita Stevenson, D-2nd, said the majority of their constituents they have heard from disapprove of the county’s membership in the RDA and said they will vote to appeal the judge’s ruling as it represents the consensus of the people in their districts.

Stevenson said she was originally for the RDA but so far has not seen many of the benefits that were promised. Graham said the RDA has put much of its money into the Gary/Chicago International Airport and Porter County has not received “its fair share” as a true partnership.

The council voted to appeal the court’s decision 5-2, the proponents of the appeal being Graham, Blaney, Stevenson, Johns, and Whitten.

Along with Conover, Council member Bob Poparad, D-1st, voted against the appeal, remaining in favor of the RDA.

“My position hasn’t changed,” said Poparad, who pointed out that the three municipalities in his district -- Chesterton, Porter, and Burns Harbor -- all voted unanimously to support the RDA earlier this year with the exception of only one Chesterton Town Council member.

Poparad, who was president of the council in 2005, said he could not recall if the council members knew they were already included in the RDA before they voted 4-3 to “join in.”

State Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville, who drafted the bill that created the RDA along with others from the governor’s office, told the Chesterton Tribune that the final version of that bill in 2005 never mentioned an “exit strategy” for Porter County.

“The only question was how to create a way to contribute $3.5 million annually to the RDA. That’s the only way that everybody I knew of interpreted their vote,” said Dobis. “The (council) either has a poor memory or simply misinterpreted it. This was no secret legislation.”

Dobis proposed legislation in 2009 that would give RDA members the option every ten years to withdraw, meaning Porter County could have feasibly opted out in 2015, but the resolution was not passed after it met opposition.

“They didn’t want any piece of it and I withdrew my offer. And if the court is correct, they can just stay in it. That’s not animosity. That’s fact,” said Dobis.

The council also voted in the same way 5-2 to hire attorney Mitch Peters of Chesterton on a flat rate of $16,000 to represent the council in the appellate court and the Indiana Supreme Court if the case finds its way there. Peters was also selected by the council in February as their appointee to the Porter County tourism commission board.

In a final action, the council also voted unanimously for the Porter County Board of Commissioners to ratify the council’s vote to appeal. Plans for a joint session are in the making.

The RDA board of directors released a short statement on Friday saying they are “disappointed” in the county’s decision to appeal since the agency has received formal support from the municipalities representing the majority of Porter County residents. The agency said it will continue to operate in the interest of the citizenry of Lake and Porter Counties in accordance with the law and their values.

Stevenson Addresses Opponent Accusations

Near the close of the meeting, the council heard a statement from Stevenson who wanted to speak out about recent accusations her opponent in the May 4 primary elections, Portage Township Board member Jeremy Rivas, has made.

Stevenson said Rivas made attacks on her for contributions to her campaign, insinuating the contributions are to buy her vote to withdraw from the RDA, which she outright denied.

“My vote has never been for sale. I make every decision after careful thought and consideration, and what I believe to be in the best interest of my constituency.”

Stevenson said she has made it no secret that her campaign has been about withdrawing from the RDA while Rivas has only made it recently known he is committed to voting to stay in the RDA.

Stevenson finally called for Rivas to make a public apology to her longtime friend attorney Greg Sarkisian, who Rivas implied was lobbying for the job of handling the RDA appeal according to Stevenson.


Posted 4/19/2010