Bringing the Porter County Council's conflicting sides together is a goal of most of the six Republican newcomers seeking the nomination for the three at-large seats up in November.
The candidates are former Valparaiso High School football coach and current Athletic Director Mark Hoffman; former county chief probation officer Ralph Iler, who now teaches criminal justice vocational classes at Union Township schools and at Ivy Tech; lawyer Ethan Lowe; Porter Township Trustee Edward Morales; heating, ventilating and air-conditioning contractor Ralph Neff; and real estate appraiser Joe Wszolek.
Iler ran for the council 10 years ago, shortly after leaving his county post. He said he has matured and has a broader view now that he's been away from it for a while.
Iler has served on the county Sheriff's Department Merit Board for 11 years. He touted his experience doing budgets and getting grants while heading probation and said he has a head start in understanding the county departments.
"One of the main reasons I'm running is there is not a lot of communication among the members and the departments," said Iler, of Kouts. "That's what I do. I would work with everybody to mediate a solution. I want to bring a kinder, gentler philosophy. I'm a team-building guy, not only in coming up with solutions but implementing them."
Lowe, of Valparaiso, said a substantial part of his practice is representing government. Lowe said that experience puts him in a good position to help with problematic issues the council has faced, such as the need for a new animal shelter and funding for the Enhanced 911 system. He'd like to see a written, strategic plan for handling the Porter hospital sale proceeds.
"What I'd like to see is an advisory committee of the council, the commissioners and the public and have a formal process to explore the options the county has," Lowe said. "In that process, we can discuss the shelter and 911 and should the proceeds be used. I'm hopeful that by going through that process, we will be able to find a compromise on these issues."
Trustee Morales said he got into the race because issues the county is dealing with, such as 911 and the shelter, also affect Porter Township. He's worked in a bipartisan way with the township board on budgeting to get things done, he said, and he stressed his ability to reach across the table. He also sees an expanding role for the council in the future.
"I think we will see in the future the council will have to approve all the budgets as opposed to reviewing them as it now does," he said. "I think there's been a lack of planning on budgets. They wanted a no-kill shelter, but they didn't have a plan to fund it. It all boils down to the council needs to have a long-term plan for the type of expenditures they have."
While growing his business from its start in his garage to a $12 million-a-year enterprise employing up to 75 people, Neff learned to meet budgets and deal with banks, unions and payrolls, he said. Neff, a Center Township resident, said there has to be a way for the council and commissioners to work together and do what is right for the county.
"I hope to keep the tax rate down and get the most bang for the buck," Neff said. "I'm passionate about education. I moved from Merrillville because Valparaiso schools were ranked in the top five, and that is not the case anymore. We need to work on that to get people to stay in Porter County. We've got to get the right kind of jobs to get (young people) to stay here."
Having done appraising all over the area for 20 years, Wszolek has heard "what's on people's minds and what is important to them," he said. Since the council's main responsibility is the fiscal part of government, he wants to give his insights to influence that process. The key will be an open line of communication with county commissioners.
"When it comes down to all the different needs, what we have to do is sit down and balance what income we expect and the spending stream," he said. "To fund all the things we have to do and want to do, we have to know the circle of the money trail. We should use the income tax for attracting more economic development and not for administration."
Hoffman said he wants to apply the leadership and team-building skills he used during his 35 years as a successful head football coach to the council position, focusing on fiscal discipline and job creation. To be successful, he said, the council needs "a game plan and a way to measure results."
He'd also like to get all the communities and the county parks working together to enhance opportunities for youth sports and recreation.
"We need to teach our kids early the value of teamwork and living a fit lifestyle," he said. "If we can create a more coordinated approach, we can have a greater impact and get more bang for the dollars invested in sports and recreational facilities."