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EAST CHICAGO | East Chicago Councilman Robert Battle is the latest Northwest Indiana elected official charged with criminal charges — although none in recent memory have been this serious.

"By far, the worst," said Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who serves as chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

Buncich said the seriousness of the charges against Battle doesn't diminish the offenses committed by other officials in recent years.

"It's a black eye on our party," he said.

And unless Battle resigns or is convicted soon, the East Chicago councilman is expected to be re-elected to another term in office while facing charges of murder and intent to distribute marijuana. Battle is running unopposed in the election in which early voting already has started.

"Right now there's nothing we can legally do," said Buncich. 

A 2008 state law sponsored by state Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, and state Rep. Linda Lawson, D-Hammond, provides for an elected offiicial to be removed from office if convicted of a felony, but not while charges are pending.

The law was applied last month when Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist was removed from office after he and his wife, Deborah Soderquist, were found guilty of using money from his campaign fund and the city's food pantry. If the law had not been in effect, Soderquist, who lost his bid for re-election earlier this year, could have stayed in office until his term ended in December.

Michelle Fajman, secretary of the county's Democratic Central Committee, noted there have been election issues involving Republicans as well as Democrats in the state.

Dale Simmons, of the state Elections Division, said if Battle was convicted prior to an election, a late ballot vacancy could be filled by someone appointed by the party.

Battle could not withdraw from the ballot on his own now without being convicted or relocating out of the district — although being jailed somewhere doesn't count as relocation. The third reason for withdrawal of the name from a ballot at this date would be death.

Buncich and other officials said it would be extremely unlikely that the case would be resolved before the Nov. 3 election.

If Battle was found guilty or resigned after the election, but before the end of his term on Dec. 31, then whoever is selected by the Democratic caucus to fill his post would serve the remainder of his term this year as well as the new four-year term.

East Chicago City Council members made $42,356 a year in 2014. The amount includes an approximate $25,000 stipend per year in discretionary money, which council members can use as personal income, spend on office supplies, or use to make charitable or promotional contributions in their districts.  

Buncich realizes a person is innocent until convicted, but thinks the time has come for some type of legislation to address issues such as the situation involving Battle.

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.