Rich James: Partisan politics hurts push for conservancy district
June 23, 2011 10:06PM
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:46AM
I was proud of what Lake County Democrats did during the last session of the General Assembly. And that’s not something I have said very often over the years.
I was especially pleased with Sen. Earline Rogers, who went out of her way to stop two ill-advised attempts to fund the maintenance of the Little Calumet River.
Rogers went to bat at the urging of Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott, who also is county Democratic chairman, and county Surveyor George Van Til.
What Rogers did was clear the way for the formation of the Little Calumet River Burns Waterway conservancy district.
So, when the Legislature adjourned at the end of April, Van Til and McDermott went to work to form the conservancy district.
It seemed to be government at its finest. Elected officials had seized the moment and were doing what was right for the people.
Formation of a conservancy district would do this:
Create a nine-person board to be selected in nonpartisan elections — thus giving the people a voice in the maintenance of the river. They would be elected from nine districts.
The board would impose an annual fee of $15 to $20 per household to raise the money for the maintenance of the levees. Fifteen dollars a year is three packs of cigarettes. It also is $1.25 a month. At $20 a year, it comes to $1.67 a month. That’s less than chump change.
Unlike one of the unfair, misguided plans Republicans proposed in the Legislature, the conservancy district would include everyone in the river’s watershed, as well as cost the people less.
The conservancy district proposal puts maintenance of the river in the hands of local elected officials — taking control away from a gaggle of Republicans appointed by the governor.
Things were sailing right along.
Van Til was visiting town and city councils to explain why the conservancy district was the way to go. He even brought on board David Hollenbeck of Porter County — the best conservancy district attorney in the state.
There’s nothing in this for Van Til. Not a dime. It is just the right thing to do for the future of the Little Calumet River and the thousands of people who had to abandon their homes because of floods a couple years ago.
The floods got blamed on Dan Gardner, the executive director of the Little Calumet Basin Development Commission for years and years.
They said it was Gardner’s fault because the project hadn’t been completed. Don’t buy it.
Gardner was simply the fall guy even though he had been going to the Legislature for more than two decades begging for state money to provide the local match for the federal money to build the levees. Some years, Gardner got everything he asked for. Some years just a bone.
Things were progressing well until Lake County Republicans got involved.
They didn’t want to give up the power they seized when Gardner and the commissioners were ousted a couple years ago in favor of the governor’s appointees.
And now, Republicans have made things terribly political.
They are following Van Til around like a pack of puppies, nipping at his heels, hoping someone will pay them attention.
And then they turned to deceit and lies.
If it doesn’t suit their purpose, apparently the truth doesn’t much matter to some Republicans.
Take Lake County Republican chairwoman Kim Krull who put out a press release last week that was short on the truth. Some call that lies.
Krull said the conservancy district plan would add “nine new elected officials to the Lake County payroll.”
That’s flat-out wrong. A lie, if you will. The nine conservancy district members won’t be paid. They will serve because they care about storm water and where it goes.
And then Krull said there’s nothing to prevent the conservancy district from increasing the $20 fee to “a higher amount like $200 or $300 per household.”
That’s an irresponsible statement, Krull, something your predecessor, the late John Curley, never would have done.
But the one thing Krull conveniently didn’t say was that the two ill-advised funding plans killed in the Legislature would have cost people more than the conservancy district proposal. That’s putting politics before people.
The Republicans got dirty in the trenches, spreading the Krull-like lies in an effort to drive McDermott from the conservancy district push.
Unfortunately, McDermott buckled — fearful of misinformation costing him re-election in November —and pulled Hammond’s support from the conservancy district.
But fortunately, there should be enough town and city councils who remember the horror of the floods and what their constituents went through, to do the right thing and approve the conservancy district. It can be done without Hammond’s OK, although the city would become part of the district.
I’ve never seen the entire Lake County Democratic Party kowtow to a handful of Republicans.
I don’t think I’ll see it now because Democrats are doing what’s right for their constituents, not what’s convenient or political. And that’s refreshing.
Rich James’ column
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