Chesterton Tribune

Council rejects RDA legal fees for auditor, treasurer

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By VICKI URBANIK

In a 4-2 vote Tuesday, the Porter County Council shot down a request from the county treasurer and auditor for additonal county funds to hire their own attorney in the court fight over the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

County Treasurer Jim Murphy and County Auditor Jim Kopp each requested $5,000 from the county general fund for legal fees, but were rejected after several council members questioned why they can’t continue being represented by County Attorney Gwenn Rinkenberger at no additional cost.

Rinkenberger did represent the two earlier this month, when Kopp and Murphy signed off on a partial settlement agreement in which they agreed to stop making payments to the RDA and instead to place the affected county income tax funds in a separate, court-overseen interest-bearing account until the RDA legal issue is resolved. That position is what the county council originally wanted when it voted, 4-3, in April to withdraw from the RDA.

In response to the Kopp-Murphy settlement, the council agreed to remove them as defendants in its lawsuit against the RDA. The RDA, on the other hand, is seeking a court order to vacate the Kopp-Murphy agreement.

Murphy told the council that he and Kopp want to hire their own attorney instead of Rinkenberger simply to eliminate any hint of a conflict of interest. Kopp had said earlier that Rinkenberger might have a conflict since she also represents the county commissioners, who are 2-1 in support of a county withdrawal from the RDA though they have no direct vote on the matter.

Council member Laura Blaney, D-at large, questioned why Murphy and Kopp felt it was appropriate to go to Rinkenberger earlier this month if they now feel there is a conflict.

Murphy responded that it was his and Kopp’s understanding that if they agreed to the settlement, they would essentially be removed from the lawusit. But he also noted that it turned out that that agreement may have only removed them from their fight with the council: The RDA has indicated that it might sue the two instead, in order to force them to make the RDA payments.

But Blaney said that Rinkenberger, at least at the current time, doesn’t have a conflict. Kopp said that if the scope of the RDA suit gets bigger, the county attorney may not be able to represent them, prompting Blaney to say that if a conflict emerges later, then that’s when the additional legal fees should be considered.

Council member Sylvia Graham, D-at large, chided Kopp and Murphy, saying that they wouldn’t be in the situation they are in now if they would have thought through their earlier actions. But council member Karen Conover, R-3rd, said there are marked differences of legal opinion over the RDA issue and that it makes sense for Kopp and Murphy to have independent legal representation.

The council’s vote largely followed the same 4-3 split as when the council first decided to withdraw from the RDA, but with two differences. Council President Robert Poparad, D-1st, who earlier voted not to withdraw from the RDA, voted against the additonal legal expense on Tuesday. And council member Dan Whitten, D-at large, who did vote to withdraw from the RDA, had not yet arrived at the council meeting when the RDA legal fees were voted on. Along with Poparad, council members Blaney, Graham, and Stevenson voted to deny the request, while Conover and Mike Bucko, D-4th, voted in support.

Bucko half-joked that the RDA issue involves the office, not the individual; Murphy is leaving the treasurer’s office at the end of this year, and will be replaced by Bucko.

The council itself has retained a separate law firm, Hall Render of Indianapolis, to represent it in the RDA dispute instead of council attorney Scott McClure. The council did so because McClure also represents the city of Portage, which has been a recipient of RDA-funded projects and which has a partial say in the appointment of an RDA board member.

Rinkenberger Raise?

In a separate matter, the council tentatively agreed, 6-1, to boost Rinkenberger’s salary next year, from her current pay of about $83,000 to $95,000, or on par with the chief deputy prosecutor.

Those who spoke in support of the raise described Rinkenberger as a powerhouse of an attorney who’s taking on considerably more work. “She’s a one-woman law firm,” Conover said. Whitten said Rinkenberger has been working a “gazillon hours doing everything in this world.”

One of Rinkenberger’s recent tasks has been to coordinate the various county departments in their efforts to get caught up with the property tax bills. Graham said she doesn’t know how the county can possibly compensate Rinkenberger for all the extra work she’s done on the tax issue.

Bucko cast the sole lone vote, saying that he had hoped the council would address all county employee raises at the same time. But other council members said they will, in fact, do that when the county budgets come up for final adoption at their Oct. 27 meeting. On Tuesday, the council conducted another first reading of the county budgets but did not finalize them.

As it stood Tuesday, the county general fund was estimated to be in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $60,000 over levy restrictions, though a revised election budget was expected to free up funds, leaving a surplus of around $50,000. Still, council members noted that they might need to make cuts once the final numbers are known, meaning that raises might not be awarded for most county employees in 2010, except in certain situations.

 

 

Posted 9/23/2009