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Lake County Council prevails in legal battle with commissioners over control of purchasing, data processing

Lake County Council prevails in legal battle with commissioners over control of purchasing, data processing

Lake County Government Center aerial

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

CROWN POINT — The seven-member Lake County Council is entitled to control the county's purchasing and data processing departments, not the three-member Board of County Commissioners that has managed both those departments for decades.

That's the ruling issued Friday by Lake Superior Judge John Sedia in the unprecedented lawsuit concerning the rightful separation of powers between the county's legislative branch (council) and its executive (commissioners).

In his 10-page order, Sedia said a 1981 Indiana law expressly assigns authority over purchasing and data processing to the Lake County Council, regardless of whether the council has chosen to exercise that authority in the years since.

He said the council's 2020 ordinances claiming control of purchasing and data processing from the commissioners were sufficient for the council to actually take over the departments.

"The passage of ordinances 1451B and 1451M, the veto of them by commissioners, and the subsequent override of the vetoes by the council, are affirmed, ratified and shall remain in full force and effect as actions taken by the government of Lake County, Indiana, in accordance with fundamental statutory governing principles," Sedia said.

Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said immediately upon hearing of the ruling that the board of commissioners is planning to consult with its attorneys and is likely to appeal the judge's decision to the Indiana Court of Appeals in Indianapolis.

"Going into it we were pretty confident of our position," Repay said. "I am equally confident we will appeal this decision.

"Our initial view is that this decision does nothing to alter the specific powers assigned to the council or the commissioners in Lake County. We continue to believe that the two ordinances which are at the heart of the dispute are invalid exercises of powers expressly granted to the commissioners. We will need time to decide our next steps.”

One possible avenue of appeal may be the commissioners claim that the council lacked the authority to file its lawsuit in the first place since state law requires lawsuits brought in the name of Lake County be filed by the commissioners.

Sedia addressed that issue by observing the council's lawsuit was not filed on behalf of Lake County but by the council itself. He said nothing in Indiana law blocks the council from bringing suit in its own name against the commissioners.

At the same time, Councilman Christian Jorgensen, R-St. John, said he wishes the commissioners would instead opt to simply accept the ruling and move on, so an orderly transition of the two departments can begin.

"We're hoping this is the end of it. Nobody wants to squabble anymore over something that's this straightforward, and spend the money to do so," Jorgensen said. "I think the order speaks for itself."

Either way, Jorgensen said the council remains eager to work with the commissioners to retain the employees and avoid other disruptions in both departments.

"We don't want to disrupt the orderly working of the government," Jorgensen said. "It shouldn't be difficult. We're all working together in the same building, so you would think it should be a relatively smooth and easy transition."

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The Lake County separation of powers battle originated in part with the council objecting to commissioners repeatedly declining to award contracts to buy some law enforcement equipment requested by Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr., despite the council appropriating money for the purchases.

Martinez said in a statement Friday he was pleased to hear of the final ruling.

“I’m glad to see the legal dispute between the County Council and Board of Commissioners, concerning who has jurisdiction over county purchasing, was addressed and resolved by Judge Sedia in such a timely manner," he said.

"Now that the legal dispute is over, I look forward to working with the Council and their staff on all matters related to purchasing, and doing so in compliance with the Council’s new purchasing ordinance and the Indiana purchasing statutes.”

The parties headed to court after officials discovered the the 2019 Indiana General Assembly inadvertently deleted the process for the Lake County commissioners to veto an ordinance approved by the council, and for the council to override the commissioners veto and enact a policy notwithstanding their objection.

That process has since been restored — retroactive to the moment of its deletion — by Senate Enrolled Act 35, which Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb last week signed into law.

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