HAMMOND — A longstanding political tiff has reignited over an apparent missed deadline to reappoint Hammond's representative on the tourism board.
South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority Board president and CEO Speros Batistatos called Mayor Thomas McDermott’s recent threat of litigation challenging the decision to appoint someone other than the Hammond City Council’s choice a “cheap political shot.”
“This is a very cheap political shot designed to cast our organization in an embarrassing light. The agency that should be embarrassed is the Hammond City Council, which couldn’t get its own appointment in on time — again,” Batistatos said.
Meanwhile, McDermott said he could end up filing a lawsuit, arguing a state law governing CVA board appointment deadlines is special legislation that unfairly targets Lake County.
Hammond tourism board appointee Raymundo Garcia’s three-year term expired June 30, and the deadline for the council to reappoint him was July 15.
The Hammond City Council voted June 24 to reappoint Garcia, the operator of a popular Hammond taco restaurant, but failed to send the official notice to the CVA before the July 15 deadline set by Indiana law, Batistatos said.
It’s common practice for the nomination to be made in the form of that paperwork, Batistatos said.
“Nobody sent us that paperwork. No carrier pigeon. No email. No first-class letter … nothing. No phone call,” he said. “So in our minds, whatever you did on June 24 is all fine and well, but you got to tell us about it.”
McDermott argued Batistatos is using the Indiana legislation governing SSCVA board appointees “as a weapon to basically appoint his own board” and release Garcia — the council’s choice — from his duties.
“(Garcia), he’s an independent voice, and he’s not going to rubber stamp everything Speros does,” McDermott said.
Under state statute, the lieutenant governor’s appointee to the board — Bill Wellman — had the power to fill a delayed board vacancy, not Batistatos. Wellman did so in this case, Batistatos said.
But as head of the organization, Batistatos is pulling the strings, McDermott argued.
Garcia told The Times he believes Batistatos could have reached out to the council ahead of the deadline as a courtesy reminder.
“Any normal person, any good-faith actor would have called the Hammond City Council, maybe called or texted, and said, ‘Hey guys, your appointment is coming due,'" he said.
Garcia recently penned a letter — obtained by The Times — to CVA board Chairman Robert Forster about his dissatisfaction of being kicked off the board.
“Acting (within) the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit of the law is technically his right," Garcia wrote. "However, he chose not to take the high road and instead chose to spurn the City Council once again, showing a total lack of courtesy and professionalism."
Batistatos said he has a 19-member board — and he can’t possibly send courtesy emails ahead of time for every appointment. Every other appointing body sends the CVA a letter ahead of deadline, he added.
Hammond Councilwoman at-large Janet Venecz said the delay in notification of Batistatos’ office resulted from a staff error.
She said the statute governing CVA board appointees does not expressly state appointing authorities must notify the organization by July 15 — only that the board member be appointed by that time.
“I understand we must follow the letter of the law, but nowhere in that letter of the law does it say we are obligated to notify him. I believe it is a courtesy, yes, and a courtesy goes both ways,” she said.
According to the Indiana General Assembly's website, the July 15 deadline has been on the books since at least 1996.
Batistatos said Hammond has failed to notify the CVA of its appointment on time in three separate occasions, noting appointments from the Highland, Hobart and Dyer city councils starting coming in as early as April and May this year — well ahead of the deadline.
The Gary City Council did not notify the CVA in time for its reappointment of Michelle Robinson to the board, so a replacement was made July 16, he said.
“At least when Gary doesn’t get its appointment in on time, those officials say, ‘We’re sorry. We dropped the ball. The law is the law,'" Batistatos said.
Rohit Patel, owner of the Comfort Inn and Best Western Hotels in Hammond, has replaced Garcia.
Jahnae Erpenback, Spectacle executive vice president of operations and Majestic Star Casinos general manager, has replaced Robinson.
Batistatos spoke highly of both individuals and said they are very deserving of positions on the board.
“I’m here to put business before politics and obey the rule of law. What is so difficult about this that you can’t get this right?” he said.
Hammond City Council attorney Robert Berger sent a letter to the CVA on Monday requesting evidence to support the claim the council did not make the appointment in time.
"Do you really want to litigate this matter in court?" Berger wrote.