ELKHART — A member of the Elkhart’s compact sewer task force has resigned in a dispute over whether the meetings should be open to the public.
State Rep. Tim Neese announced that he removed himself from the task force after consulting with Indiana Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage and said he believes the closed-door meetings are a violation of Indiana’s Open Door law.
The task force, assembled by Mayor Dick Moore in hopes of coming up with a compromise solution to the commercial compact sewer dispute, has met twice behind closed doors — a violation of the Open Door Law, according to the state’s public access counselor.
The office offered an informal opinion last week, saying the task force needs to provide proper public notice of the time and location of meetings and that the meetings need to be open to the public.
Moore advocated that it meet privately for its first meeting on May 15 to avoid “distractions” and said he believes the closed meetings are not a violation of state law.
The closed meetings are viewed by the state as a violation because panels that provide recommendations to elected officials and are assembled by elected officials fall within the definition of the Open Door Law.
Three of four Republicans on city council have criticized the task force for the lack of transparency.
City council member Brian Dickerson recently filed a formal complaint with the public access counselor. As a result, the state office will review the circumstances and then offer an advisory opinion.
“Although we have a respectful disagreement, the mayor understood my position,” Neese said. “Since a complaint has been filed with the public access counselor, the next step, if occurring, would be a lawsuit, which concerns me as the city of Elkhart could be liable for both attorney’s fees and court costs, which could amount to thousands of dollars.”
According to the public access counselor’s office, a complaint doesn’t necessarily mean a lawsuit will occur. That would have to be prompted by somebody from the public.
The office doesn’t have enforcement powers and their advisory opinions are often used as a guide for public officials.
According to three people, the task force met Wednesday afternoon, May 22. Unlike the first meeting on May 15, which Moore announced but avoided providing a time or location, no announcement was made of Wednesday’s meeting.
Neese, a Republican, released his statement late Wednesday afternoon.
Neese did not attend the task force’s meeting Wednesday. His decision was announced at the meeting, but no reason was given, according to Carol McDowell Loshbough, a member of the task force.
Moore said he respects Neese’s decision, but he’s not concerned about it.
Moore said he’s not worried about the prospects of a lawsuit and that Neese won’t be replaced on the task force.
Moore said he doesn’t think Neese’s resignation is political, but thinks complaints by some Republican council members are political.
Meanwhile, McDowell Loshbough, a Republican, said the task force agreed on Wednesday to continue to meet privately for the time being. No vote was taken on whether to open up the meetings, but several people spoke against the idea.
She said some task members believe meeting privately lends itself to more open and frank discussion. She said she believed some task force members don’t want to face public scrutiny that might come as a result of media coverage.
She said personally that she preferred to have the meetings open.
McDowell Loshbough said she also believes criticism from council members about the Open Door Law is being driven by politics.
Moore and the city council have struggled for months to find a compromise after business owners began complaining about the expansion of the compact fee policy that was supposed to take effect on Jan. 1.
Moore says the city has a right to recoup its costs for service and maintenance. Some business owners says the current compact fee is exorbitant.
The task force is expected to offer a recommendation to city council within a few weeks.