Chesterton Tribune

Porter Park Board united against Town Council power grab

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During a special meeting Monday, the Porter Park Board unanimously rejected the Town Council’s request to transfer all Park Department employees to the council’s jurisdiction effective Jan. 3.

Council president Michele Bollinger has said doing so would streamline town operations.

Park Board vice-president Becky Maranto disagreed. “I personally find this (streamlining) to be a horrendous mistake that would negatively impact the Town of Porter Parks system.”

President Patty Raffin said ever since the Park Board was created by town ordinance in 1934 it has operated as an autonomous board with its own employees as state law provides. “The idea that the park superintendent has to report to the town council in order to properly fulfill his job is erroneous.”

Member Jessie Campaniello said the Park Board hasn’t been told what their restructured role would be sans employees other than as “festival or party planners,” and she did not want to see years of past effort to improve Porter parks trampled “just because of a potential power struggle or hidden agenda by the Town Council.”

Park officials said they are concerned about job security for 22-year park superintendent Jim Miller and 19-year park administrator Stephanie Miller if the council assumes jurisdiction over them.

Rondi Wightman, whose term on the Park Board ends Dec. 31 unless reappointed, said her board has made repeated requests of the Town Council to obtain in writing a job description, any new organnizational chart that would impact park employees, and assurance that the streamlining effort wasn’t intended as a means to terminate the park superintendent.

“Our requests were all denied,” said Wightman

She also said while it may frustrate some or all council members that they can’t give Miller orders, he is not their employee and the council’s special requests do not fall under his job description unless specifically authorized by the Park Board.

The council meets tonight at 7 p.m. Member Jon Granat, liaison to the Park Department, said the park matter is not on the council agenda and he doesn’t think any action will occur regarding it.

The Park Board motion included rejection of the council’s proposed defunding of the Park Board’s overall budget by the amount required to pay park employees. Tonight the council will consider a resolution to transfer appropriations but a town hall spokesperson said this will deal with routine year-end transfers.

Public shut-out challenged

Raffin criticized the council for presenting the employee-transfer request to the Park Board as a done deal without the council ever having discussed it publicly or allowing for public input.

Former Porter council president Bill Sexton announced last night that he has filed a formal complaint with Indiana Public Access Counselor Andrew Kossack challenging the Dec. 14 joint executive session at which the employee transfer was discussed.

The council called the non-public meeting and invited the Park Board to attend to discuss job performance of individual park employees, but Sexton’s PAC complaint alleges that 80 percent of the closed meeting dealt with a discussion of changes to policy and procedure related to the proposed employee transfer instead.

Bollinger has been asked to submit a formal response on behalf of the town and the PAC office indicated an advisory opinion would be issued in about 30 days.

Last night, Sexton said the council is attempting to have the Park Board circumvent town ordinance by agreeing to transfer its employees. Coupled with the lack of public discussion when it appears the council already has reached consensus, he added, “I think it’s all wrong. I think you’re violating a lot of things.”

Sexton also disagreed with Granat when the latter said Jim Miller has two bosses, the council and the Park Board. Replied Sexton, “Jim has one boss, the Park Board.”

Citizen and Board Reaction

Town resident Judy Chemma, one of 11 attending last night’s park meeting, said she was furious when she read about the council request because it never was open for public comment.

Chemma said years ago another Porter Town Council unsuccessfully tried to challenge that Park Board, and it’s upsetting to her the current council is trying to revisit a situation that’s already been dealt with. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she urged.

Zathoe Sexton, a former Park Board president, said it’s a moot point that the council would be more available to the park superintendent because the council meets twice a month. Park Board members can indicate preferences to the superintendent between monthly meetings and respond to council liaison concerns, she added.

Sitting Park Board members read individual statements prior to their vote.

Maranto said the employee swap leaves the Park Board rather powerless as to how and when work would be done in Porter’s parks. “It is unclear to me as to why this would be beneficial in any way, shape or change this now is perplexing.”

Campaniello said transferring oversight of park employees to the already-busy council could overwhelm it “and leave both a negative effect and negative impact on the Porter Parks as a whole.”

She also said the Park Board might be more agreeable to the council’s stated big future plans for Porter parks, especially Hawthorne, if only the Town Council would provide specific details what they are.

Raffin said the Park Board has worked and can continue to work with the council on joint projects, like the Hawthorne community building upgrades, and the Park Board has allowed the use of the park superintendent’s time at council request to plow snow and maintain lawns at the police station and town hall.

Added Raffin, “The park system in Porter is considered the ‘Jewel of Porter’ as described by our branding committee and outside consultants.”

Raffin said she voted no because under state law the Park Board is charged with hiring and directing its own employees; because of concerns this and future councils will not allocate adequate resources to maintain and enhance park properties; and because feedback received thus far has been negative regarding the proposed change.

Raffin also emphasized that “If the Park Board is disbanded, there will be no autonomous board to advocate on behalf of park needs.”

As an example she cited the Town Council’s recent request to approve an open stormwater drain through the middle of Hawthorne Park cutting the property directly in half. After the Park Board voiced concerns and questions, Raffin noted, the project is being redesigned with underground lines “although we are not sure if this proposed drainage plan is still in the best interest of future development of the park.”

Wightman said the council has never communicated in writing or stated specific examples of poor job or work performance by superintendent Miller.

The Park Board, not the council, annually evaluates the job he’s doing, continued Wightman, and “we have received numerous compliments” for a job well done by both Millers.



Posted 12/28/2010