ST. JOHN | The Indianapolis-based Indiana Commission on Public Records is concerned about the St. John Town Council hiring its own private recording secretary for council meetings rather than using records and minutes taken by Clerk-Treasurer Sherry Sury.
Sury’s attorney, Jeffrey E. Gunning, of Munster, filed an inquiry in September with ICPR Director Jim Corridan after the five-member Town Council approved hiring Susan Wright on Sept. 13 as the official record keeper and source of official minutes for council meetings.
Wright has been the recording secretary for the St. John Plan Commission for more than a decade and is paid $120 per meeting. As Town Council private secretary, Wright is billing the town $70 per council meeting.
Those funds are being paid from the St. John general fund budget, according to Town Council Attorney David Austgen.
In an email to Town Council President Michael Forbes dated Oct. 12, Corridan said, “These duties are the legal responsibility and obligation of the elected town clerk-treasurer under IC (Indiana Code) 36-5-6-6(9).”
That portion of the Indiana Code reads, “The clerk-treasurer shall do the following: Serve as clerk of the legislative body by attending its meetings and recording its proceedings.”
Corridan said in his email that the Commission on Public Records “is concerned about the legitimacy of the minutes of the town council meetings not being recorded by the town clerk-treasurer or their designee, but by a contractor of the town council.”
The commission’s position, its director says, “is that the official minutes of the town council should be taken by the town’s clerk-treasurer and then amended, revised and adopted by the governing body.”
Recordings of those meetings in the form of official minutes “presented by a third-party and adopted by the town council may put in question the official actions of the town council,” Corridan wrote.
He also notified the St. John Town Council and Austgen that by using local tax funds to pay a secretary, the council may run afoul of the State Board of Accounts. The SBA audits the financial records of all Indiana cities and towns.
The SBA “might fault the individual members of the town council for paying for duplicate services and seek reimbursement for the individual members to repay the town’s coffers,” Corridan wrote.
In a phone interview, Corridan said he had notified the Indiana State Board of Accounts, and Joseph Hoage, the Indiana public access counselor, about the situation.
Calls to Mary Jo Small, SBA field supervisor for Lake and Porter counties, weren’t returned. Hoage said his office requires an informal inquiry to be filed before considering the matter.
The issue first surfaced at the own Council’s Sept. 27 meeting.
At that meeting, Austgen cited Indiana Code 36-1-3 regarding home rule which, he said, gives the Town Council the authority to hire employees.
“You have the legal power to hire whoever you need,” he told the council.
According to the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, “Home rule refers to the ability of city and county governments to exercise discretion with respect to government form, structure, functions, fiscal and regulatory matters. States have the power to authorize whether local governments may exercise home rule and the breadth of their home rule powers. Home rule is an important measure of local government independence."
Town Council Vice President Mark Barenie, who also is chief financial officer with The Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago, said at the Sept. 27 meeting that he prefers for Sury to spend time providing financial reports.
“I’m a little puzzled how this got this complicated. I think this matter is simpler. I’m puzzled because Sherry is still here,” Barenie said. “As a CFO, I don’t think the clerk-treasurer needs to be typing meeting minutes. She should be watching the money.”
On Thursday, Austgen provided the town’s response to Corridan’s email.
“Is Mr. Corridan an attorney?” Austgen asked. “He can’t render a legal opinion. He’s just the director of a state department.”
Corridan referred any questions about the Town Council’s response to his email to Forbes.
Regarding Corridan’s reference to the State Board of Accounts and the public access counselor, Austgen said the council hasn’t been approached by either agency and won’t make any statements to or about them until that contact occurs.
“Our clerk-treasurer is not being barred from these meetings. You notice she is here, and she is recording the proceedings,” Austgen said. “The Town Council has elected to have someone else generate the meeting minutes.”
Sury uses a tape recorder to record all Town Council meetings. She keeps copies of all those tapes.
Wright has been using the new digital recording system recently installed in Town Hall.
Austgen said the new digital recording device is “an effort to modernize our system.”