Some mayors rely on chiefs of staff, others do without

2012-07-29T00:00:00Z 2012-07-29T23:20:11Z Some mayors rely on chiefs of staff, others do withoutBy Chelsea Schneider Kirk chelsea.schneider@nwi.com, (219) 933-3241 nwitimes.com

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's administration has a prominent vacancy.

In June, Delvert Cole, who served as the city's deputy mayor since Freeman-Wilson took office, moved over to the Gary Housing Authority to become its new interim director.

Freeman-Wilson said she hasn't made a decision on the future of the position, but won't fill it by the end of the year.

“There are a number of considerations,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I want to see how things go without it. I want to see how the community responds to it.”

Initially, Freeman-Wilson said she wouldn't come into office with both a deputy mayor and chief of staff. She said she changed her mind when she saw “the magnitude of the job” in front of her.

“As we analyzed our need for government I said, you know, maybe that's not a bad idea going in because of some of the tremendous challenges that we had both internally and at some of our ancillary agencies like the housing authority and the sanitary district,” Freeman-Wilson said.

Cole had garnered a $90,000 salary as deputy mayor, and Chief of Staff B.R. Lane, who is still in the position, makes $99,000.

Gary had been the only city in Lake and Porter counties to have a deputy mayor on payroll but the position of chief of staff is more prevalent. Hammond, Crown Point and East Chicago all have chiefs of staff. In Porter County, Valparaiso has a city administrator. 

Mayors maintain the positions are vital players in their administrations even as local governments continue to grapple with tight budgets.

“A mayor alone can't do everything,” East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland said, “and when the mayor isn't around, there should be a clear person that people know they have to answer to.”

Yet, budgetary concerns have led some mayors to do without the positions. Lake Station is a city without a chief of staff or a deputy mayor.

“I would love to have a go-to person, if you will, to do all the extra stuff that we do day to day,” Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist said. “I appreciate the need for one. We cannot afford one today.”

In East Chicago, Copeland brought on the city's veteran fire department chief, Val Gomez, when a caucus of East Chicago precinct committee members first appointed him as mayor. Gomez has worked at the city for more than 30 years, and that experience is invaluable, Copeland said.

“You have to remember when I came in, I came in through the caucus,” Copeland said. “I literally got elected that Saturday and had to start work that Monday.”

Copeland won his first popular election to the mayor's office in 2011, but the original members of his team from when he transitioned to the office have stayed. Gomez receives an annual salary of $75,000 in his position.

“He advises me,” Copeland said, “and what I don't deal with, he deals with.”

Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas created the city administrator position when he came into office.

Department heads report day-to-day business to the city administrator, Costas said. Current city administrator Bill Oeding makes $75,990 in his role.

“It has been very effective. A mayor can not run the day-to-day business of the city and do everything else a mayor is supposed to do,” Costas said.

In Hammond, Mayor Thomas McDermott, Jr.'s chief of staff, Tom Dabertin, is a city contractor who dedicates 15 to 25 hours a week with the city. When McDermott took office, he had a chief of staff and the now-eliminated position of deputy chief of staff.

Now that McDermott is in his third term as mayor, he said he's learned the difference between projects that require his direct involvement and ones that need his monitoring. If a project falls into the latter category, the city's chief of staff handles it, McDermott said.

“We touch base on about 20 different things every day,” McDermott said.

Dabertin's contract, which is through the city's Water Department, is billed hourly and can't exceed $95,000 a year. Dabertin also doesn't receive health insurance benefits from the city.

Dabertin took the position in an acting role last June when former chief of staff Rick Calinski left the city. Dabertin has worked as a consultant for Hammond, in various capacities, for 12 years.

“Before assuming the title, I was kind of, the mayor used to say the go-to guy for special projects and ideas – making sure we brought them to fruition,” Dabertin said, “and I still do that.”

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