GRIFFITH — The election for town residents to secede from the tax burdens of Calumet Township has been years in the making, but is happening too soon for Democrats on the Lake County elections board.
Griffith's registered voters are going to the polls Sept. 25, but only over protests town officials aren't giving voters enough time to prepare for this important decision.
Kevin Smith, chairman of the elections board and a Democrat, complained Griffith residents, who aren't already registered to vote, only have until Monday to sign up. He asked why the Griffith secession vote couldn't be held off until the Nov. 6 general election.
"I have overriding concerns about this timeline for absentee voters and registration. I think it disenfranchises voters," Smith said.
Lake County Clerk Mike Brown, a Democrat said, "It seems Griffith (Town Council members) are putting a rush on this."
Dana Dumezich, a Republican election board member, said 30 percent of the town's voters already have signed petitions in support of the referendum. "Residents of Griffith are fully aware of this election."
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Town Council President Rick Ryfa, R-3rd, said after the meeting, "This election is no surprise. It is a standing agenda item on Town Council meetings. We have been talking about this for years."
Bitter partisan politics have long attended the efforts by Griffith town officials to relieve residents of supporting the high cost of assistance in Calumet Township, which is distributed mainly to Gary's poorest residents.
Calumet Township, which includes Gary and Griffith, distributed more than $1.3 million in assistance last year to more than 17,00 residents, primarily in Gary.
But years of even higher township taxation prompted the Indiana General Assembly to pass a law in 2013 permitting Griffith to vote on a referendum to move to a neighboring township if the Calumet Township trustee’s poor relief tax rate exceeded the statewide average tax rate by 12 times.
The township gathered enough signatures to hold a referendum in 2016, but the township trustee's office sued to stop the process. That litigation ended earlier this year in Griffith's favor and the town began a new petition drive.
Ryfa said town officials gathered enough signatures earlier this month and met with county election staff members who said they didn't want Griffith's special election to occur too close to the Nov. 6 election so they chose Sept. 25.
The election board said that requires a shortened timeline for pre-election activities. All new Griffith voters must be registered for the special election by Monday. Early in-person voting will begin Tuesday at the election board's Crown Point offices in the Lake County Government Center.
The deadline for early voting ends Sept. 22.
Smith said, "I've never experienced such a condensed timeline without any public notice. I would love to see voters in the town of Griffith file an injunction on the election and see what a court would do with that."
Ryfa said the town scheduled the special election before the general election because they want to strictly follow the law and avoid new litigation from the township trustee.
Smith said the town should petition the state election commission to give voters more time to register.
Republican election board member Michael Mellon said town officials have their residents' best interests at heart and if voters are upset over the timeline town officials could be punished in next year's municipal election.
The county election board will meet again 2 p.m. Monday to begin the process of validating voting machines for the Sept. 25 special election.
The referendum must pass with at least two-thirds of the voters voting 'yes' on the public question of secession.