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Waste district officials seek way forward amid 'embarrassments'
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Waste district officials seek way forward amid 'embarrassments'

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Parking spaces and scissors may be key to reforming "embarrassing" spending practices within the Lake County solid waste district, several board members say.

Board Chairman David Hamm and at least three other board members said parking the district's five current take-home cars and discontinuing the district's four credit cards would be good first steps to reforming what Hamm called an "embarrassing" trend of "excessive" spending.

Board members Hamm and Crown Point's Bob Clemons said they want a new director selected from outside the agency to replace former Executive Director Jeff Langbehn and the tradition of excessive spending of taxpayer money that occurred under his watch.

Better oversight of Lake County Solid Waste Management District spending by the agency's fiscal officer and discontinuing the position of a full-time waste district lawyer also are ideas being discussed.

But several other board members concede none of the ideas for reforming the district will matter if its 27-member board doesn't more thoroughly review district expenses in the future.

'Embarrassing' expenses

A push for reform follows the Sept. 3 termination of Langbehn's contract after several board members said the director misled them about a $751.14 designer purse and accessories he purchased as a gift for a district employee.

A subsequent Times investigation revealed the district charged to its credit cards tens of thousands of dollars during the past 6-1/2 years on clothing for employees, gifts for a board member, meals and other spending some officials now say was for "luxury" items.

Hamm said he and some other board members are "embarrassed over some of the things that have been overlooked over the years."

"We're not just embarrassed for others. We're embarrassed for ourselves," Hamm said.

Clemons, who also serves as a Crown Point councilman, said the only way to shed that embarrassment is eradicating the culture that led to the spending.

Cutting the cards

Waste district acting Director Jeanette Romano said a change being made by the district's bank, BMO Harris, at the end of October provides a potential starting point for reform.

Much of the waste now being decried occurred via charges to waste district credit cards.

At the end of October, the district's bank will no longer offer the type of credit cards the waste district has been using over the years, Romano said.

Lake County Treasurer John Petalas, who also works on contract as the waste district's fiscal officer, said his preference would be to eliminate waste district credit cards at that point.

"I've never been big on government credit cards," Petalas said.

"I don't use them here in the treasurer's office for reasons like this," he added, referring to the waste district spending controversies. "People can be reimbursed for business expenses just as easily."

Hamm, Clemons and the waste district board's two Griffith representatives, George Jerome and Rick Ryfa, also favor shredding the cards.

"The County Council doesn't have credit cards," said Hamm, who also serves as a Lake County councilman. "Maybe the waste district doesn't need them either."

Parking the cars

The same board members also agreed it's time to review the district's take-home car practices and possibly park the vehicles or designate them for business use only.

Romano confirmed last week the district's five current vehicles — and a total of 34 over the past 13 years — have been used as both business and take-home vehicles by waste district employees.

Hamm said the board has resisted parking the district's take-home vehicles in years past. But he said there may be enough will to do so in light of some of The Times' findings.

Changes at the top

Ryfa, a board member who also serves on the Griffith Town Council, said Langbehn was earning too much compensation, about $107,000 per year, for managing a waste district of seven employees.

Prior to his termination, Langbehn was the highest paid solid waste director in the state.

Ryfa said he would like the board to consider lowering the base salary of any future director to about $71,000 — the 2013 salary of the next highest-paid waste district director in Indiana.

Clemons said he believes it's also important that any new director hired by the board come from outside the district's current pool of employees.

"The next director will have an uphill climb in winning the board's trust," Clemons said. "If you're going to change horses, you might as well get a fresh one."

Hamm said he agreed with Clemons "wholeheartedly." He said Romano, who previously served as Langbehn's assistant, hasn't told him if she's interested in becoming permanent director.

"But I agree any new director should come from outside the district," Hamm said. "It's time to start fresh."

Staff changes

Among other district staff changes that should be considered is the position of its full-time attorney, some board members said.

The waste district's attorney, Clifford Duggan, was compensated $88,658 in 2013, making him the second-highest paid district employee, local government payroll records show.

Duggan was supplied with five new take-home cars over 11 years, including the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu he currently drives, waste district records show.

Hamm said he favors setting up a district/attorney contract billed at an hourly rate for work done rather than keeping a lawyer on staff.

"The board would then have to work to keep those legal costs down," Hamm said.

Duggan did not return a call placed Monday by The Times.

Ryfa said he doesn't believe the district is getting its money's worth by keeping a full-time attorney on staff. He noted for larger contract disputes, including Langbehn's termination and the 2013 termination of a controversial trash-to-ethanol contract, the board had to retain the services of an outside law firm.

Hamm also said the board should look into changes to the rest of the professional staff in light of the recent resignation of one of the district's three educators, who teach recycling practices to region school children.

Asleep at the switch?

Jerome, who also serves as Griffith's clerk-treasurer, said a number of reforms to the district's spending habits are "clearly needed."

But he said no amount of reforms will help if the waste district's 27-member board remains asleep at the switch.

"We've been watching the cash register and forgot to watch the backdoor," Jerome said. "We haven't been watching the money the way we should have been."

Jerome and Ryfa also said it may be time for the Indiana Legislature to consider revisiting the statutory makeup of waste district boards.

Under Indiana law, the unpaid waste district board consists of one member from each municipal government body, two county council representatives and one county commissioner. Cities and towns with landfills, even if they're closed, each receive a second seat on the board.

In Lake County, that means Munster, Griffith, Gary and Hammond each have two board members.

Jerome said the formula has created an "unwieldy" board of 27 members who aren't focused on the job at hand.

He said legislation should be considered to reduce the number of board members. Both Jerome and Ryfa support that concept, even if it meant their town could lose one of two votes on board matters.

Jerome also would like to see more input from Petalas, who works on contract as the waste district's controller, in reviewing district expenses and claims and making more thorough reports to the board.

"The controller bears some responsibility here to have the information presented to the board in a better manner and to raise red flags with the chairman," Jerome said.

Petalas said he is "absolutely" willing to become more involved in the waste district's expense reports, which previously were handled by Langbehn and his staff, if the board requests it.

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