‘I want to be directly involved’

December 26, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY — With a vacancy on the Michigan City Redevelopment Commission and some major projects in the offing, Mayor Ron Meer has decided to do double duty.

The mayor’s office announced Thursday that Meer will be filling the commission seat for 2019, a decision not sitting well with a couple of City Council members

Council member Candice Silvas was outspoken in her criticism, saying more diversity is needed on city boards and commissions, rather than the same “circle of people” being appointed.

In his announcement, Meer said, “Michigan City is at a crucial time in its history. The Redevelopment Commission will be directly involved in some major projects, such as NICTD Double Tracking, the retirement of the NIPSCO Generating Station, and development of the former Michigan City Police Station and News-Dispatch properties.”

He believes an elected official should serve on the commission.

“These projects will have a substantial impact upon Michigan City’s future and growth, and I believe it is important that the residents are represented by their elected official,” Meer said. “I want to be directly involved with many of these projects.”

Council member Johnny Stimley disagreed.

“A mayor should not need, nor want, to occupy a board position meant to be filled by an appointed local representative. It is not normal practice,” he said. “Ideas that are generated by the community members are more valuable then that coming from a single elected person such as the mayor.”

But council member Tim Bietry thinks it’s a good move.

“We just lost two members of the Redevelopment Commission who were knowledgeable and had done a good job,” he said. “We now have two new members whose intentions seem good, but who both lack the depth of knowledge needed to make the best decisions for Michigan City.

“I have no problem with the Mayor appointing himself to help keep the commission going in the proper direction,” Bietry said. “I think his presence will help the new members to better grasp the responsibilities they have volunteered for as well.”

Silvas said she and council members she spoke with are “frustrated and disappointed” by the announcement, of which they were notified in a letter Thursday.

“All these boards and commissions should be inclusive and representative of the entire city. When you have the same people from the same area representing people from other areas, their values and ideals are not articulated ... a call for change has been made, but instead of listening, the mayor responded in a way that I see as an insult to residents and decided he is the best person for the job.”

Stimley said, “In my experience it has never been good to have one voice when others can contribute.”

Meer shook off the criticism, saying the move was “not a conflict of interest” and will save the city about $3,600 a year since he will not be paid for the position. He also said it’s not unusual for a mayor to serve on an appointed board.

“The council has their own appointments to the board. I don’t interfere with their appointments and they should not interfere with mine. The people I appoint to boards are, of course, people who agree with my agenda. Why would I appoint people who are going to argue with me?”

The city attorney, along with representatives from Accelerate Indiana Municipalities, reviewed the matter and determined Meer has the authority to appoint himself, according to the mayor’s office.

“It may be legal but it’s not the right thing to do,” Silvas said. “When we say we’re looking for diversity and under-represented populations in certain communities, then to appoint yourself? A mayor should be willing to listen to and want new ideas, voices and people...”

She said she did some research and of 190 appointed positions in the city, there are 20 people who serve on two boards and six who serve on three.

“We have an incredibly diverse community,” she said. “I find it hard to believe that in a city with approximately 18,000 (voting) adults, we can’t find 190 unique persons to serve. ... We have so many capable, competent and committed individuals in our city, you cannot tell me you can’t find 1 percent of them to serve.”

The mayor said it’s no different than in the private sector, where the same people serve on boards for multiple businesses and charities.

“Some people are just doers,” Meer said. “They have the expertise and time, and they want to help by serving however possible.”

On the Redevelopment Commission, Meer will fill the seat vacated by Larry Silvestri, chairman of his 2019 re-election campaign.

He will join two other new faces. At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, John Sheets and Pat Kowalski were chosen to replace the Rev. Damon Carnes and Kathy Dennis for 2019.

Other members are mayoral appointees Charles Oberlie and Don Babcock. Council liaison Stimley and Michigan City Area Schools Board liaison Theresa Edwards are non-voting members.

The goal of the commission is to “clear, plan, and redevelop blighted areas” and spur “economic development in previously undeveloped or in developing areas,” according to its web page.

Its $90,000 annual operating budget comes from investment earnings, including Tax Incremental Financing revenues. Approved projects are paid for with TIF revenues, bond issues and invested funds.

The commission has the authority to approve some projects, but major projects, and any that require bonding, must come before the City Council, Meer said.

“I think the council will be looking a little more closely at these projects in the future,” said Silvas, whose Facebook post led to pointed criticism of the mayor.

Bietry said he thinks some of that criticism is misplaced.

“I believe some of the criticism is based on personal animosity and not based on what is in the best interests of the city as we continue to move forward,” he said.

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