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Lake commissioners assert county council lacks power to sue in purchasing tug of war

Lake commissioners assert county council lacks power to sue in purchasing tug of war

Lake County Government Center aerial

The Lake County Government Center is seen from above in Crown Point.

CROWN POINT — The separation-of-powers dispute between the Lake County Council and the Lake County commissioners — for management and oversight of millions of dollars in county government contracts — may be headed for a stalemate.

The commissioners asked Lake Circuit Judge Marissa McDermott on Monday to scuttle a lawsuit filed Nov. 6 by the council seeking clarification on whether council-approved ordinances taking control of county government purchasing and data processing were legitimately vetoed by the commissioners.

According to the commissioners, whose three members together serve as the county executive, the seven-member council does not have the authority under state law to sue the commissioners, either as a person entitled to seek declaratory relief or as the legislative branch of Lake County government.

"The power to maintain civil actions is not among the powers vested in the council," the commissioners say. "In contrast, the commissioners have 'all powers and duties of the county that are executive or administrative in nature pursuant to Indiana Code.

"Indiana courts have long held that all actions on behalf of a county must be brought in the name of the county executive. Only the county executive has the power to maintain a civil action."

If McDermott agrees the council lacks the ability to sue the commissioners, there likely will be no resolution to the dispute, unless the Indiana General Assembly acts next year to clarify the specific powers of the council and commissioners under state law.

On the other hand, if she still allows the lawsuit to proceed, the commissioners note the council's authority to override a commissioners' veto was deleted from state law in 2019, and the council therefore cannot take control over county purchasing and data processing without the commissioners' consent.

"The council has no statutory authority to override a veto of an ordinance by the commissioners," says the filing by commissioners' attorney Joseph Chapelle.

A response by the council, through its attorney, Ray Szarmach, is expected to be filed in coming weeks.

Szarmach is likely to point out the statutory change eliminating the council's ability to override a veto also deleted the procedure the commissioners must follow to veto a council-approved ordinance in the first place, leaving the commissioners with no power to nix council actions.

In that case, the council could pursue its claim the commissioners lack the authority to oversee county purchasing and data processing because a never-implemented 1981 Indiana statute delegates those powers in Lake County to the county council.

The commissioners contend, however, that purchasing and data processing both require forming contracts, which is a power specifically and exclusively delegated to the county executive under state law.

At the center of the dispute is ire by several councilmen toward the commissioners for repeatedly questioning the need for some county spending items, particularly for the sheriff's department, even though funding for the purchases had been approved by the county council.

Last week, the commissioners unanimously agreed to defer action on the sheriff's plans to spend $36,000 on a new police vehicle, $16,875 for vehicle antennas, a $50,000 boat package, a $21,000 vehicle lift, $23,560 for body temperature scanners and $16,775 for a two-person all-terrain vehicle.

Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. asserts that equipment is essential for maintaining public safety in Lake County, and the commissioners are endangering residents by their "blatant attempt to micromanage the operations of the sheriff's department."

Commissioners response: Lake County Council v. Lake County Commissioners

Council lawsuit: Lake County Council v. Lake County Commissioners

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