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Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk

A blue-water calm sets in at Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on an unusually sunny and warm day in January. But Times columnist Marc Chase says dark clouds of controversy will continue to follow the administration of Portage Mayor James Snyder as his federal bribery indictment lingers.

Strong vision and hard, efficient work are the stuff of community growth and success — the qualities of solid leaders.

But those qualities can't elevate leaders — regardless of their past successes — beyond the specter of a felony indictment alleging personal enrichment and abuse of public trust.

Innocent or guilty, and he'll get his day in court at some point, Portage Mayor James Snyder is learning this social and legal truth the hard way.

The stifling stranglehold such accusations place on a leader continue to multiply in their effect on Snyder's ability to lead.

They will continue to do so until and unless he resigns or is exonerated of felonious wrongdoing.

It's a painful truth for many in Portage — and elsewhere in the Region — to consider given Snyder's many successes at the helm of the city's executive office.

Portions of our Region are blessed with an idyllic mix of industry, stunning natural lakefront and promising development.

In my 13-plus years living in Northwest Indiana, I've watched Portage become the epitome of all of these qualities.

Business and warehousing developments around the Bass Pro Shop off the interstate, along Central Avenue near City Hall and newer, cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing municipal buildings help define the Portage landscape.

The city's tax base, and therefore its residents, are the direct beneficiaries.

The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk is a National Park Service facility made into an eye-popping recreational and natural wonder through the collective vision and funding of many entities.

Much of what we see in Portage is due, at least in part, to the strong vision of Mayor Snyder.

A desire to continue that vision is a major reason why Snyder says he won't resign office in the wake of the federal felony bribery indictment he faces.

Federal prosecutors allege he solicited self-enrichment through bribes paid by city towing contractors. Snyder also is accused of tax evasion.

Snyder continued to contend his innocence Friday when I met him for a tour of the city and an interview in his office.

Innocent or not — and I'm neither prosecutor nor judge — I've contended in the past that the shadow of the federal accusations are too great a distraction to city business. I've argued, as has The Times Editorial Board, that Snyder should step down and focus on his legal defense.

Evidence of this immense distraction grew evermore apparent earlier this week when controversy erupted over a recent taxpayer-funded trip Snyder and two top police officials took to Washington, D.C.

The primary purpose was Snyder's attendance at the United States Conference of Mayors, a staple and typically innocuous event attended by many mayors throughout the country.

Mayors and other municipal officials attend the conference to glean ideas of best practices they can then bring home with them.

Snyder told me he opted to bring police Chief Troy Williams and Assistant Chief Ted Uzelac Jr. with him because community policing topics were included on the conference agenda, and police acting as security for their respective mayors could attend the conference free of the $1,200 individual registration fee.

The conference was contiguous with President Donald Trump's inauguration, so Snyder and the two police officials attended that historic event as well.

None of the trip, on its face value, would have stirred much controversy had Snyder not been under the weight of a federal bribery indictment.

But he was and is.

Some Portage officials went on the attack last week, criticizing the mayor for seeking and receiving taxpayer reimbursement for a $539-per-night hotel suite, rather than a cheaper $429-per-night standard room, while he attended the conference.

Snyder said his staff booked the more expensive room because his wife and children traveled to D.C. with him, largely to witness the Trump inauguration.

It's a $110-per-night quibble that Snyder could easily have satisfied by knocking the difference off the amount he requested for reimbursement. After all, taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pick up the bill for the mayor's family to attend.

But he didn't. All told, Snyder was reimbursed $3,892.64 from city coffers, which included the cost of the nicer accommodations, the conference registration and valet parking.

It's not really the stuff of intense scandal, however. In fact, Snyder argues he could have charged the city a per diem for his meals but did not.

Portage Clerk-treasurer Chris Stidham also accused Snyder of taking along taxpayer-funded bodyguards by bringing along his police chief and assistant chief. Chief Williams and Assistant Chief Uzelac collectively rang up another $5,303.52 in hotel, travel and meal charges to be reimbursed by the city, documents provided by Snyder show.

Though they attended registration-free under the "security" clause of the event, it's easy to see why Stidham and other officials would get worked up over the city paying for non-mayors to attend a mayoral event.

Clearly, Snyder didn't need a security detail. The mayor, of course, argues his top cops benefited from connections made at the event and the topical nature of some of the event themes.

All of that may be true, just as Snyder may be innocent of the bribery charges he faces.

But he'll continue to face such intense scrutiny as long as he remains under indictment. This uncertain veil will choke out his ability to lead the way he otherwise could. It will continue to hang like an albatross around the necks of the mayor's staff and other city officials aligned with him.

Snyder acknowledged Friday the indictment is deeply affecting staff morale. How could it not?

Council members of both political parties recently implored the mayor to resign. Other entities have done so as well.

Regardless of the good he's done for Portage, it may be time for Snyder to listen.

Editorial Page Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marc.chase.9 or Twitter @nwi_MarcChase. The opinions are the writer's.

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Local News Editor

Marc Chase is a veteran investigative reporter, columnist and editor of more than two decades. He currently leads The Times news staff as local news editor. He can be reached at 219-933-3327.