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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.

A litany of outrageous circumstances tied to disgraced Lake County Councilman Jamal Washington aren't just further damaging the reputation of local government.

They're proving taxpayers aren't getting their money's worth from the supposed public servant.

The circumstances are an embarrassing enumeration.

It's not just that he maintained his elected, $32,681-per-year position on the Lake County Council after pleading guilty last December to battering his wife.

It's not merely that he dragged the county and its government through the mud for a year pending the outcome of that case, then threw a party, complete with other elected celebrants, to mark his avoidance of felony charges by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.

It's not just that he's an inmate — this December — in the same Lake County Jail whose finances he has helped preside over as a member of the council.

It's not only that the new stay in the jail, expected to last at least through Christmas, pertains to yet another domestic violence case — this time three felony counts of criminal confinement, two felony counts of intimidation and misdemeanor counts of battery and interference with the reporting of a crime.

And it's not just that for the final Lake County Council meeting of 2017, none of Washington's Gary, Merrillville, Griffith, Schererville and St. John Township constituents received representation on about 50 different votes central to the expense of taxpayer dollars. He couldn't weigh in on the important fiscal matters from his jail cell.

Individually, any one of these matters would raise legitimate questions regarding Washington's fitness to lead as a public official on any level.

Taken together, the circumstances are a clear mandate for county leaders to be seeking pathways to Washington's ouster from his council seat — and potentially future political ballots.

Washington's criminal charges must play out in court. His accuser, a cousin, is now recanting allegations she made to police that Washington grabbed her by the neck, slammed her to the floor, threatened to bash her with a sledgehammer and detained her for two hours against her will earlier this month.

Police and prosecutors aren't buying the recantation, pushing forward with charges to be overseen by two special prosecutors.

But why must the county endure the embarrassment along with Washington?

While Washington surely runs a lower risk of creating new embarrassments behind bars, he's clearly not serving his constituents either.

On Monday, he'll have his first hearing regarding an alleged probation violation.

You see, getting caught up in the recent domestic violence allegations may threaten the no-prison-time plea deal he cut with prosecutors when he admitted in open court last December to battering his wife.

Washington remained on probation at the time of the recent incident. Probation officers are petitioning to revoke his probation in light of the recent occurrences.

And if Washington's probation is revoked, he could be looking at extended jail time — up to a year if a judge decides to impose the entire suspended sentence of the plea agreement, prosecutors said.

If that happens, County Council members and their attorneys should be paying close attention to a state statute allowing local government bodies to expel elected officials who are no longer able to fulfill their duties.

East Chicago City Council members used the statute to unanimously vote former Councilman Robert Battle, who remains in jail facing a felony murder charge, out of office last year.

It's clear any public official sitting in jail isn't able to effectively tend to the public's business.

There's reason to believe such a will may exist among the County Council to oust Washington if it becomes clear he'll be in jail for an extended period.

The Lake County Council voted last week to strip Washington from the county’s Community Corrections Committee, which helps set budget and policy for that work-release program. And council President Ted Bilski used his privilege to oust Washington from a number of other law enforcement- and court-related committees in the wake of the recent criminal charges.

The wise justification of those moves is that a person with as many legal troubles as Washington would have too many conflicts of interest in dealing with court or law enforcement budget issues.

Meanwhile, it's time for our state lawmakers to discuss legislation creating mechanisms by which public officials, who are unable to perform their duties, can be docked pay commensurate with public meetings or work missed.

Simple ground rules listing specific reasons, such as incarceration rather than sickness, would seem to be appropriate considerations.

As of the writing of this column, Washington had been in jail eight days pending probation and other hearings. It appears he could be jailed at least through Christmas.

If he were jailed and missing work in a private sector position, there's an incredibly high likelihood he already would have been fired.

Why should his public employment be held to a different standard?

We shouldn't have to wait until the 2018 election to sort out Washington's public employment issues.

The remaining County Council members — the ones who aren't in jail on domestic violence charges and allegations of violating probation in a separate battery conviction — owe it to their constituents to push for solutions.

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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