ELKHART — As Mayor Tim Neese’s term draws to a close, one of his key staff members is leaving the administration for a job in Indianapolis.
Communications director Courtney Bearsch said she has accepted a job with the Indiana Department of Transportation starting on Aug. 26. That means her last day at the Mayor’s Office is Friday.
Neese, acknowledging the difficulty of getting a new communications director up to speed in the four months that remain until the city has will have a new mayor, as well as the difficulty of finding anyone who would be willing to take the job for such a short amount of time, has decided not to hire a replacement.
Instead he will hire Bearsch as an independent contractor for fewer hours. She will be providing news releases, media advisories for city events, proclamations, talking points and other tasks that can be completed after hours, she said.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Bradley Tracy, will handle time-sensitive communications, and Bearsch will assist on evenings and weekends to ensure the efficient operation of the Mayor’s Office for the remaining four months.
Tracy joined the Neese administration in January and has promised a smooth transition when Neese leaves office at the end of year. The Nov. 5 municipal election will determine who takes the mayor’s job starting in 2020.
Employing Bearsch as a contractor will save the city some money, as she currently earns $68,127 plus benefits per year, or roughly $22,700 over a four-month period. As a contractor, she will be paid $7,000 for her services over the next four months, without benefits.
Funding for the proposal was approved by members of City Council on Monday evening, though the resolution was a “second” away from failing.
When Councilwoman Mary Olson, R-at large, made a motion to adopt the resolution, nobody seconded.
“Are you kidding me? This is bulls---. Bulls---,” said Tracy, who then left the council chambers.
There was some uncertainty as to whether Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at large, who was the only other council member supporting the resolution, could second the motion under council rules. Dickerson pleaded with his colleagues for someone to second.
“I need a discussion on this tonight, so I would appreciate a second,” he said.
After another moment, Councilman Richard Shively seconded, allowing the resolution to be discussed.
“You want to go get Mr. Tracy so he can storm back into the room?” Councilman Brian Thomas, R-2, said to Neese, who declined.
Neese told the council that Bearsch, who has been with the administration from the beginning in 2015, has unique experience and is needed for the remainder of the year.
Olson said she wouldn’t have liked this move if it weren’t for the fact that Neese is not running for re-election this November.
“It would be a stickier situation, with all due respect, mayor, if you were on the ballot,” she said.
David Henke, R-3, said he was worried about creating a precedent of having people in important roles working part-time from Indianapolis. But he said he would vote for the resolution given the fact that there is so little time left of Neese’s term, combined with the almost $16,000 plus benefits the city will save.
Councilmen Brent Curry, D-5, and Kevin Bullard, R-at-large, made similar points.
Shively asked Neese if Bearsch has the necessary skills to work remotely. When assured she did, Shively said he would vote in favor of the proposal.
Chief of Police Chris Snyder told the council that Bearsch plays an important role in assisting the Police Department’s work with journalists and community relations.
Councilwoman Pam Kurpgeweit, R-6, then said she was leaning toward voting in favor.
One councilman, Dwight Fish, D-4, was not impressed by the quick turnaround.
“Just a few moments ago this thing almost died because it didn’t get a second, and now we’re shifting our considerations into a positive vote, from what I hear. Obviously you haven’t done your homework if you’re that easily swayed. And the public looks at us like we’re a bunch of fools,” he said.
The resolution was approved in a 7-2 vote, with Fish and Thomas voting against.
“It has been an honor to work for Mayor Neese, and although I will no longer be a city employee, I am looking forward to continuing to do my part to ensure the ongoing success of this administration,” Bearsch said in an email Tuesday.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus