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East Chicago's City Council members make top dollar in the state at $42,356 a year.

A Times Media Co. survey of municipal salaries indicates East Chicago City Council members' income is more than five times the average salary of council members of 75 community governments survey by the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns last year. 

City and town council members are the elected legislators and policymakers of the community.

The salaries of city and town councils in Gary, Hammond, Schererville, St. John, Merrillville, Highland, Michigan City and Whiting also were among the top in the state, according to a Times survey of 2014 Indiana municipal wages.

The IACT report indicated the mean salary for city and town council members in their voluntary survey was less than $7,200.

East Chicago council members are also eligible to receive insurance and pension benefits, when, added to Medicare and Social Security contributions, totals more than $12,000. Most Lake County cities and towns don't offer such benefits to council members -- technically considered part-time employees.

But Myrna Maldonado, an at-large councilwoman, said their salary figure is misleading.

"It includes a stipend we had to merge into our salary about four years ago," she said.

East Chicago Council President Lenny Franciski said the stipend represents about $25,000 per year in discretionary money council members can spread around their respective districts for charitable or promotional contributions as well as to purchase office supplies -- or use as personal income.

Maldonado said she treats her stipend not as hers, but the city's.

"During the Christmas season, I do a coat drive for children, and I don't ask for companies to donate to it. I buy hams and fruit baskets around Thanksgiving. We donate to social organizations like back-to-school or Easter egg and athletic events. We get letters all the time about donations. I want to give back to the community," she said.

Councilmen Robert Battle and Juda Parks and Robert Garcia, who served on the City Council from 2004 to 2007 and is running to return this fall, said there is no requirement for them to keep records of how they spend their stipend. Battle and Parks said they don't mingle their stipend money with the campaign money.

Battle and Parks said they spend their stipend money on donation requests from churches, children's sports organizations as well as children's clothing for low income families. The city controller's office said the stipend is included in the council members paychecks and the council members don't log their donations with the city.

Accountability issues

Maldonado said she wishes East Chicago followed the model of other communities, such as Hammond, which parcels out casino revenues to its council members for infrastructure in such a way that it isn't counted as part of their income.

"I like the way Hammond is doing it. That would give us a salary comparable to Hammond and more accountability to where those donations go to," she said.

She believes the City Council needs to discuss the issue.

Hammond City Councilman William Emerson said his city sets strict regulations about how each of them spends their share of casino revenues each year, primarily on infrastructure.

"I've committed every dime to that I can to roughly one to two blocks of street repairs or ornamental lighting on streets, a bike path or park repairs," Emerson said.  

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Hammond City Council members last year received a $25,143 annual salary. Emerson said he received an additional $30 for each meeting he attended of boards that regulate licenses to work in the city on electrical and building ventilation.

A municipal council, depending on the community's size, can have three, five, seven or nine members. The Indianapolis consolidated City Council has 29 members.

Municipal council members serve as their local government's legislative and fiscal policy body. Setting salaries is among their powers, but Carolyn Rogers, a veteran member of the Gary Common Council, said it's not the first thing on her mind.

"The salary of the Gary City Council is the same one we've had since I got there. There are other things like trying to find money for police and fire and city employees who hadn't receive raises in years," Rogers said. 

Municipal council members are typically considered and paid as part time. East Chicago's Franciski said the reality is something else.

"Ask my wife; it is a full-time job. Any little piece of literature I put out there, I put my cell number, my home number. I answer every call I receive. Especially as council president, you take the job home with you," he said.

Conflicts of interest?

But from the standpoint of the East Chicago payroll, Franciski makes more money as assistant director of the city's public works department. That pays $73,585.

Adam Sedia, a Dyer trial lawyer, said it is estimated hundreds of municipal council members, like Franciski, also are employees of their government.

"Police or fire officials are well known and make natural candidates for local office," Sedia said.

A new state law has declared the double employment as a conflict in interest and forces those with dual roles to choose by the end of this year between their public office and their other career with the town, city or county.

Sedia has filed suit in U.S. District Court on behalf of six Lake County city employees running for election or re-election this fall, to have a judge declare the new state law unconstitutional.

Those suing include Hobart Councilman Matthew Claussen, a Hobart policeman; New Chicago Councilwoman Susan Pelfry, who works at the town's water department; East Chicago Councilman Juda Parks, a city policeman; and two Hammond firefighters, Hammond Councilman Michael Opinker and Scott Rakos, a Democratic party nominee for Hammond city council.

Sedia said Tuesday he has filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Philip P. Simon to stop Indiana from enforcing the law on grounds it would unfairly harm the careers of the plaintiffs.

No date has been set for a decision on the matter.

Franciski, who isn't part of the suit, said he is watching it closely to see whether he will have to give up his council seat or 20 years of his life.

"I started off as a garbage man and worked my way up," he said of his current job as East Chicago's assistant public works director.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.