A botched election process, technology strides, closing of a world-renowned institution and municipal construction projects marked some of the highs and lows of 2018 in Porter County.
Election snafu results in delay, calls for investigation
County voters had to wait three days for the results of the November midterm election as a result of numerous problems with the process, including 12 polling places opening late, a shortage of poll workers and accusations of mishandled ballots.
Secretary of State Connie Lawson agreed to assist Porter County election officials in figuring out what went wrong and put in place processes that ensure future elections run far more smoothly. The announcement came amid calls for police investigations and a call for the immediate resignation of Republican Election Board member and former Porter County Clerk Karen Martin, who has been held largely to blame for the election problems.
Alleged confession tossed in Chesterton murder case
The Indiana Supreme Court dealt a blow to county prosecutors in early December when it upheld a state appellate court ruling that threw out Hobart resident Christopher Dillard's alleged confession in the murder of Nicole Gland, 23, of Portage. Gland was killed April 19, 2017, after being stabbed her in her vehicle in a parking area behind the former Upper Deck Lounge, 139 S. Calumet Road, in Chesterton, where she and Dillard worked.
The courts tossed the alleged confession because Chesterton police ignored Dillard's repeated requests for an attorney during his interrogation.
Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel, who was replaced Jan. 1 by Gary Germann, said the loss of the alleged confession will not derail the efforts of his office. "There is sufficient evidence aside from statements made at the Chesterton Police Department to move forward with the prosecution," he said.
GOP no longer rules Porter County
Democrats took back control of the Porter County Council, prosecutor's office and the clerk's office during November's midterm election.
Republicans held on to control of the board of commissioners, the bench in Superior Court 2, and the county recorder and coroner's posts.
Among the new faces taking office Jan. 1 are Democrat Jessica Bailey as clerk and Republican Cyndi Dykes as coroner.
Germann returned to head up the prosecutor's office, Democrat Bob Poparad returned to the County Council and Republican Chuck Harris left his role as county coroner to take over as county recorder.
Those holding on to their seats included Democratic Porter County Auditor Vicki Urbanik, Republican Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffery Clymer and Republican County Commissioner Jeff Good.
Lots of hammering and sawing around county government
Porter County government undertook massive building construction and renovation projects this year.
The county teamed up with the Portage Township trustee's office to build a "one-stop shop for government services" center near the North County Complex in Portage, which is itself undergoing a renovation.
The front of the county administration center in downtown Valparaiso also was reconstructed and renovation work is underway inside and outside the nearby county courthouse.
The county also bought back its former jail building at 157 Franklin St. in Valparaiso and is moving over its 911 dispatch center as well as other county offices.
A massive renovation to the county Expo Center also began in the fall.
Portage Mayor James Snyder public corruption case
Court proceedings continued throughout 2018 in the federal public corruption case against Portage Mayor James Snyder.
Snyder was indicted in November 2016 on two counts of bribery and one count of tax evasion. Snyder’s trial date was postponed three times during the year and is set to begin Jan. 14, 2019.
Issues surrounding the case included whether a group of emails that were reviewed by prosecutors should be considered attorney/client privileged. The emails were the subject of several closed door hearings in May. Snyder wanted the indictment dismissed, but U.S. Court Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen disagreed and ruled against Snyder.
It also was revealed during the year that his brother, Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder, acted as a confidential human source in the more than four-year investigation. Jon Snyder pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor federal tax charge involving his personal business in October. The plea deal came with Jon Snyder agreeing to be a cooperating witness for prosecutors during his brother’s trial.
Valparaiso University Law School to close
Valparaiso University officials announced in November 2017 the university’s law school was no longer financially sustainable and would be closing enrollment.
Officials began 2018 trying to find a partner to keep the law school alive. That search ended in October 2018 when a deal with Middle Tennessee State University to move the law school to the Nashville-area campus fell through.
VU officials said they were out of options and the law school, which had served students for more than 100 years, would close after the final student currently enrolled has graduated or transferred to another university.
Portage school resource officer battle
Portage Township Schools and the city of Portage battled for several months during the year over the use of police officers within the school district.
For decades, the Portage Police Department had provided officers to work as school resources officers at Portage High School. In spring of last year, Police Chief Troy Williams announced a school security plan that included providing two additional officers, at no charge to the district, for use within the schools.
That plan wasn't reviewed or approved by the schools, which approved its own school security plan, including the use of police officers from outside of the Portage department.
For weeks, heated words were exchanged until the school district ended its relationship with Portage police and began using school resource officers managed by the Porter County Sheriff's Department.
Leaders in technology
Both Chesterton and Valparaiso took giant leaps forward in 2018 to attract high-tech development by launching high-speed networks.
Valparaiso launched its ValpoNet fiber network in May. The some 25 miles of 288 strand fiber runs predominantly along Ind. 49, but circles to the east and both north and south of U.S. 30. The cost for construction was about $2.4 million.
Chesterton launched the Chesterton Fiber Optics Network or CFON in July. The more than 15 miles of fiber cost the town $1.5 million to construct.
Valparaiso industrial site to get massive transformation
In May, the Valparaiso Redevelopment Commission chose Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins Properties for the proposed redevelopment of the former ANCO factory, including housing, commercial/retail space and Journeyman Distillery.
Flaherty & Collins Properties plans a $78 million investment in the project, not including the Journeyman Distillery, which would be financed by the distiller itself.
Apartments and townhouses are envisioned at the site, where the ChicaGo Dash commuter bus station is located. The apartments would be built along Campbell and Brown streets.
NorthShore Health Centers of Indiana broke ground for its newest $18 million facility on Willowcreek Road in Portage in August.
The clinic, which began inside Portage High School, more than 20 years ago, now services Portage, Lake Station, Chesterton, Hammond and Merrillville.
The new facility, which will be completed in fall 2019, will allow the centers to offer mammography, optometry and more dental services as well as a drive-thru pharmacy. The centers' administrative offices also will move into the new building.
Valparaiso City Hall upgrades
The century-old Valparaiso City Hall began undergoing a $4.2 million renovation and expansion project.
The City Council approved a $3 million bond issue for the project. In addition to the bond, the remaining $1.2 million will include $700,000 from the riverboat fund and $500,000 from the cigarette tax fund.
Just under 2,000 square feet will be added to the ground floor on the west side of the building, adjacent to the present council chambers. The one-story addition will house the council chambers, which will seat 100 people. The present council chambers will be refurbished into a new clerk-treasurer's office.
The lower level of the building also will be renovated and will house the engineers office, conference rooms and other offices and facilities. The building will be fully handicapped accessible once the transformation is completed, including the installation of an elevator.