Portage mayor gets backlash for helping Gary with snowplows

2014-01-23T21:00:00Z 2014-01-24T15:57:06Z Portage mayor gets backlash for helping Gary with snowplowsJoyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

PORTAGE | Some Portage City Council members are criticizing the mayor for sending snowplows to neighboring Gary on Wednesday to help with snow removal.

Mayor James Snyder said Thursday he reached out to Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson on Wednesday to offer assistance following this week's snow storm that dumped nearly 20 inches of snow in some parts of Gary.

He sent four snowplows to Gary to assist that city's crews to clean streets from 2:30 to 10:30 p.m. Two of the plows were called back to Portage in the late afternoon when snow began falling there again.

Snyder said he got the idea after he spoke with City Councilman Mark Oprisko, who told him the roads were impassable in some parts of Lake County and that Oprisko couldn't get to his business in Munster.

"I thought about how many of our residents who might not be able to get to work or residents from there who couldn't get to our stores," Snyder said.

Freeman-Wilson said she received a text from Snyder offering help.

"I looked at it from the perspective that we do mutual aid with fire and police," she said, adding her city was grateful for the help.

Oprisko, who led the criticism of Snyder's decision through a series of sometimes heated text messages between the mayor and City Council members Wednesday night, said he never suggested Snyder send city plows to help Gary or any other community.

"I'm highly irritated over this," Oprisko said Thursday.

"This has never been done before," he said, adding that while he believes mutual aid between communities is beneficial, that this week's snowstorm did not qualify as a catastrophe. "I could understand it if it was a tornado or a major fire. This was nothing major. It was a waste of our taxpayers' dollars. He should personally pay for it."

Oprisko said he also objected because Snyder did not consult the council, which is the fiscal body of the city, before sending the plows to Gary.

Council President Sue Lynch and member Liz Modesto agreed with Oprisko.

"I'm not opposed to helping out a community in a disaster," said Modesto, adding she didn't believe the snowstorm qualified. She also questioned taxing the limits of Portage's plow drivers who have worked hard this winter clearing Portage streets.

"I believe in mutual aid for the fire and police, but I'm not sure that extends to streets," said Lynch, adding making the decision without council input puts council members in a bad situation because they receive telephone calls from residents wanting to know what's happening.

"All we want is the facts, which is what we would have had had we been asked about it," she said.

Council member John Cannon said he supported Snyder's decision and believes he has the authority to make it without council input.

"We have to reach out to the communities that need help. This was a catastrophic situation," he said, adding that 13 of his employees who live in Lake County couldn't get to work in Portage on Wednesday because of the snow.

Tim Bono, one of the plow drivers sent to Gary, said they helped in the Miller and Glen Park sections of the city, working with Gary drivers to open streets. Bono said drivers returned to Portage with full fuel tanks and salt supplies.

Snyder said he believes the gesture to Gary cost Portage residents less than $500.

"This administration will never apologize for helping our neighbors who faced disaster. By helping our neighbors in Gary, we helped Portage local businesses where some of those residents shop and work," Snyder said. "Our entire street department is holding their heads up high today because we were able to be on the giving end of help instead of the receiving end. The City Council should be holding theirs high as well."

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