News and Tribune

Election 2012

March 26, 2012

New conflict-of-interest bill affects local office holders

Ted Heavrin said he wants to continue to serve the public

INDIANAPOLIS — Floyd County Council President Ted Heavrin said he would retire as Floyd County Sheriff’s Department chief before stepping down from elected office if a new state law ultimately forbids him from continuing in both capacities.

Last week, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed a bill into law that bars government workers from serving in an elected office that sets budgets, laws or policies that could benefit that employee. That same legislation prohibits many — but not all — local officeholders from directly overseeing their relatives.

Heavrin can still seek re-election in November and serve out the four-year term if he wins, as the law doesn’t go into effect until 2013. With more than 36 years on the job, Heavrin is the longest-standing officer in the history of the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department, but he said his duty to residents as an elected official is equally important.

“The county council now reviews all county budgets, including the city’s,” Heavrin said. “You have to know what’s going on.”

And state officials really don’t know what’s going on in local communities, he continued. Heavrin said he disagrees with taking the decision on who serves at the municipal and county levels out of the hands of local residents.

“It should be up to the voters,” he said.

Daniels called the legislation a “good government” bill that was long overdue.

That sentiment is echoed by the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns, known as IACT, which is an organization of local elected officials that made the bill one of its top legislative priorities. But there are office-holders across the state who may be affected by the new law that say it’s a heavy-handed move by the legislature to interfere in local government.

In Terre Haute, for example, two members of the city council are also city firefighters. In Anderson, two city council members are city employees and a Madison County councilman works in the county assessor’s office. In Kokomo, there’s a city police officer who’s on the city council. In Fort Wayne, the deputy police chief sits on the city council.

“I think the [new law] is another example of big government deciding that they know better than the everyday, common folk,” said Jim Chalos, a Terre Haute firefighter, city councilman and son of a former Terre Haute mayor.

The legislation is part of a local government reform effort that Daniels has been pushing since he took office. The legislation emerged from what’s known as the 2007 “Kernan-Shepard” commission that recommended sweeping changes in how local government is run.

Rep. Kevin Mahan is a Republican and former Blackford County sheriff who carried the bill in the House. He called it a “good start” toward more accountability and transparency in how local government is run.

He garnered support for the bill from several key stakeholders, including IACT and the Indiana Association of Counties.

“I think they supported it because it’s good government and good policy,” Mahan said.

IACT executive director Matt Greller said that as local governments are struggling with tightened budgets and declining revenues, it’s critical to assure local taxpayers that elected officials weren’t making decisions out of self-interest.

“Whether there were bad decisions or not being made in the past [because of conflicts of interest], there was a perception that some bad decisions were being made,” Greller said. “It’s time to clear that up.”

Under the law that Daniels signed Monday, anyone elected to a council or board in 2013 or after can’t be an employee of the government agency that board oversees. The same legislation forbids an official from supervising a relative, but there are exceptions. In townships, for example, trustees with offices in their homes can hire just one relative, who can make no more than $5,000 per year.

There are other exemptions: Volunteer firefighters are exempt from the nepotism provision. Sheriffs can still hire their spouses to be jail matrons. A coroner whose term has expired can serve as a deputy coroner even if the top job of coroner is filled by a relative.

The new law also contains language for contractual services with family members of office-holders, beefing up requirements for the bidding and awarding of contracts. The legislation’s supporters are convinced it will lend more credence to the decisions made by local elected officials. But opponents are skeptical.

— Staff writer Daniel Suddeath contributed to this report, as did Howard Greninger of The Tribune Star in Terre Haute.  

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