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Recent editorials published in Indiana newspapers

February 19, 2019

The Munster Times. February 14, 2019

Sheriff right to push back against ugly patronage hiring

The patronage hiring culture so deeply rooted in Lake County politics seems to be rearing its ugly head again.

The Lake County Council should be working to keep that culture in check rather than emboldening a fellow councilman’s effort to perpetuate it.

Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez is right to push back against it.

Newly elected Lake County Councilman Charlie Brown should check any notion he has of seeking a police job for the son of close friend and disgraced former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til.

That hiring request, and a probe Brown is attempting to launch into the sheriff’s hiring practices, came to a head at this week’s Lake County Council meeting.

A heated argument between Martinez and Brown during that public meeting ensued.

Brown is attempting to get Martinez to turn over the list of all eligible candidates for county police vacancies.

Martinez rightly argues that no one outside of his office is entitled to those personnel documents, which are exempt under the Indiana open records laws.

We strongly believe in the free flow of information, and the sheriff should provide whatever information he can under the law without producing protected material.

But we suspect Brown actually is pushing this issue because Martinez has resisted Brown’s requests to consider the son of a longtime Brown political ally for the county police force.

“Last year, he asked me to hire a particular person,” Martinez said of Brown. “I refused to do so. Since then, he has been demanding our eligibility list and individuals’ names, and we don’t release that.”

Brown, of Gary, admits he asked the sheriff to consider hiring his close friend George Van Til’s son, Ethan Van Til, as a county police officer.

The closeness between Brown, a former Indiana legislator, and George Van Til cannot be denied. Brown attended the 2013 federal court hearing during which George Van Til pleaded guilty to felony counts of essentially stealing from taxpayers.

At the time, Brown told The Times he was there offering support for his friend.

“He’s my friend, and you don’t desert friends in times of trouble,” Brown told The Times after the hearing.

That was Brown’s prerogative.

But it is not Brown’s prerogative to push the scourge of patronage hiring that has so scarred Lake County for decades.

The Lake County Council seemed to embolden Brown’s efforts Tuesday, voting unanimously to send Martinez a letter requesting his hiring eligibility list.

Beyond any patronage issue is one of administrative propriety.

The Lake County Council is not elected to hire the best police candidates for the sheriff’s office.

The seven-person council is elected primarily to preside over county fiscal matters.

The sheriff, on the other hand, is elected by county voters to serve as chief administrator of the county jail and police force.

Martinez, a longtime county police officer, was duly elected to serve in that role.

The Lake County Council should stay in its lane and keep any reality or perception of patronage hiring well away from local government offices.

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The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette. February 13, 2019

Equal justice

Indiana’s broken public defender system requires a thorough overhaul, but the modest changes lawmakers have undertaken this session are promising. They can fully deliver by approving a biennial budget with funds to fully support reform. The investment ultimately will enhance public safety and save tax dollars.

The disparaging assessment of the state’s public defense services came in a harsh report from the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center, which monitors state and federal adherence to the constitutional protections afforded everyone accused of a crime.

“If indigent defense services are structured so as to actually deny counsel to defendants, or to constructively give the accused a lawyer in name only because the lawyer has too many cases or operates under too many financial conflicts to be effective, the system itself is constitutionally deficient,” the 2016 report stated. “Yet, this is an apt description of the constitutional right to counsel in Indiana today.”

The Indiana Task Force on Public Defense was established in response. Former Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Tinder served as chair of the panel, which found multiple problems, including:

. Uneven access to counsel

. Excessive misdemeanor caseloads

. Presence of conflicts of interest

. Inadequate commission staff

. Need for greater service in child welfare

Senate Bill 488, which would create multicounty public defender offices, comes from task force recommendations. Some smaller counties - including Whitley, Wells and Huntington - do not participate in a state program providing reimbursement for a portion of public defender services because they would be required to comply with caseload limits. The legislation could serve as a cost-sharing mechanism to allow those counties to meet the minimum standards.

It also would address conflicts. Currently, judges in the non-participating counties hire public defenders or appoint attorneys to act as counsel for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own. A judge, in those cases, has authority over a public defender who might have to challenge the judge’s own work to adequately represent his or her client. SB 488 cleared the Senate with a unanimous vote and now moves to the other chamber.

House Bill 1453, now before the Ways and Means Committee, is another vital step toward improvement. It would expand indigent defense reimbursements to misdemeanor cases. Allen County government called for misdemeanor reimbursements in its legislative priorities this year, as well as an increase in felony reimbursements. It would provide an additional $100,000 for defense services in Allen County.

Money is essential to improving Indiana’s indigent defense system. The Indiana Public Defender Commission’s 2019-21 budget request calls for a base increase of $4.47 million a year; expanded reimbursements at an additional $5.7 million annually; and creation of a statewide appellate office at $4.9 million a year.

Supporters of the reform initiatives point to the opportunity to mitigate public costs. Misdemeanor cases, for example, can be costly when defendants face fines and loss of licenses.

“Research has shown that the ability to earn a living is the best way to keep someone from committing another crime; however, the excessive barriers confronting those with a criminal conviction make the task of being able to provide for oneself and family nearly impossible,” a coalition of national criminal justice groups wrote. “Ensuring an effective public defense delivery system will decrease the number of people burdened with collateral consequences, resulting in more people remaining contributing members of society.”

The statutory changes in SB 488 and HB 1453 should be approved. But lawmakers must also provide the necessary budget appropriations if Hoosiers are to honor a constitutional obligation to protect the rights of the accused.

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South Bend Tribune. February 14, 2019

Take a hike for Hoosier health

You’d think that lawmakers wouldn’t hesitate on legislative action that enjoys widespread support and tackles a serious, stubborn health problem.

In Indiana, on the subject of raising the cigarette tax, you’d be wrong.

Despite backing from a broad range of interests in the state, as well as from the public, legislators seem unwilling to move on House Bill 1565.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer, R-Beech Grove, would raise the state’s cigarette tax to $3 per pack.

Raise it for Health, a statewide coalition of 139 health, business, youth and community groups, contends that increasing the cigarette tax by $2 would significantly reduce smoking rates and also result in approximately $300 million in additional state revenue annually — new revenue that could be used to tackle other Hoosier health issues, such as drug addiction and infant mortality. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce sees the tax hike as a way to reduce smoking’s cost to the state’s economy.

And a recent poll indicates that the public seems solidly behind the idea. A Dec. 9-12 survey of 600 Indiana voters by Bellwether Research found 70 percent of Hoosiers favor a $2 per pack cigarette tax hike, if a portion of the money is spent on tobacco use prevention programs.

Bellwether President Christine Matthews, the one-time pollster for Republican former Gov. Mitch Daniels, notes that there’s unusually high intensity in favor of raising the tax as more than half of poll respondents (51 percent) said they “strongly” support increasing cigarette prices.

Also worth noting for lawmakers afraid to vote for a “tax hike”: A majority of GOP respondents said even if a Republican legislator took a “no new taxes” pledge, and later voted in favor of raising Indiana’s cigarette tax, they still would support that legislator by a 54 percent to 36 percent margin.

Matthews says that’s because “voters don’t view a hike in the price of cigarettes as a traditional tax” and see it more as a user fee.

Polling results aside, passing a cigarette tax remains an “uphill fight” here in Indiana, says Bryan Hannon of the American Cancer Society. Hannon also chairs the Raise it for Health campaign. He says raising the tax will help Indiana raise its dismal health rankings. Indiana dropped from 38th to 41st among states in overall health. And smoking is a primary factor in that ranking.

Supporters of raising the cigarette tax will rally at the Statehouse for Advocacy Day on Tuesday. People will be invited to talk with legislators.

The truth is, Hoosiers have already spoken loud and clear about the need to raise the cigarette tax for health’s sake. It’s past time for elected officials to listen and take action.

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