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Rich James: Levee issue is mired in politicians’ re-election ambitions

Rich James

Rich James

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Updated: October 31, 2011 2:16PM



Whatever happened to that saying that “good government is good politics.”

There was a heckuva lot of truth to that. Still is.

But today it’s all about getting re-elected and to many that means doing the right thing politically. Too many elected officials are afraid to embrace “good government” for fear of not appearing to be astute politically. Sad.

It used to be that elected officials stood up for what they believed in.

Now it’s a matter of standing up for what they think is going to get them re-elected.

Let’s look at a couple examples — Lake County municipal officials and Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Coats.

The issue in Lake County is the establishment of a conservancy district to levy about $15 per household annually to fund the maintenance of the Little Calumet River levees that have been under construction for the last 25 years.

Yeah, that’s the same river that rolled over its banks a couple of years ago and into thousands of homes from Lake Station to Gary to Griffith to Highland to Munster and Hammond and more.

It wasn’t pretty.

Virtually every elected official within the Little Calumet watershed — other than those in the good old Republican Boys Club in Munster — knows that the conservancy district is the course to take.

The conservancy district is the epitome of how good government would blend into good politics. It’s taking care of the people they were elected to serve.

Earlier this year Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott and Lake County Surveyor George Van Til went to the General Assembly and killed two ill-advised attempts to fund the levee maintenance.

They said they wanted to form a conservancy district to keep costs at a minimum and have the show run by a locally elected board — not the governor’s political appointments, as is now the case.

McDermott, who also is Lake County Democratic chairman — a position of leadership importance — had a change of heart and left Van Til to fend for himself.

McDermott suddenly decided that good government apparently isn’t good politics when you are five months away from re-election. Too bad.

And even though we are talking a mere $15 a year — a pittance — to prevent the tragedy of two years ago, some of these local officials are acting as if you are talking about eliminating Social Security.

I don’t mean to single out McDermott. There are mayors and town and city councilmen across the Little Calumet watershed who are afraid of their own shadows, afraid of good government.

Only the Gary city councilmen seem to appreciate what’s at stake and are prepared to stand up for it.

It all makes me wonder what U.S. Rep. Peter Visclosky, who secured most of the $245 million needed to build the levees, thinks about this whole scenario. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard.

Van Til said he has had countless officials approach him and say, “George, you’re doing the right thing, but I can’t help you cause it’s election time.”

What they really are saying is to let someone else resolve this mess while they go about getting re-elected.

That’s pathetic.

It all comes back to what continues to plague Northwest Indiana — a lack of leadership.

Where is the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission in all this?

Where is the Northwest Indiana Forum Inc.?

Where is the Quality of Life Council?

Where is the Construction and Building Trades Council?

Where are the chambers of commerce?

Where are the Realtors who sell the homes along the river?

Where are our state legislators — the ones who provided the state money to serve as the local match to the federal dollars to build the levees?

Other than Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, I guess the legislators don’t much care. Hey, it’s summer.

All of the above organizations are sitting back, hoping not to get tainted. Hoping not to make anyone angry.

Hoping that river never, ever floods again.

* * *

And then there is Dan “Oust Obama” Coats.

Yeah, he’s the guy who was elected to the Senate after Sen. Evan Bayh hung the state Democratic Party out to dry and quit.

And Coats quickly embraced the God, guns and gays issues that are the hallmark of the Republican Party.

But more than anything, he’s done his best to become one of the darlings of the tea party.

Coats’ office pumps out emails on a daily basis condemning Obama and anyone else who wants to spend the taxpayers’ money.

Well, that was until last week when he issued a statement condemning the Veterans Affairs secretary for saying his agency had decided not to build a new VA health care center in Fort Wayne — the area Coats represented when he was in the House.

I guess spending doesn’t matter when you are trying to curry the favor of the nation’s veterans.

I thought maybe Coats would say they could rehab the old place or take over an abandoned building and save the taxpayers bundles. Not so. Makes you wonder what those tea partiers are thinking.

Coats is no different from those town and city officials in Lake County. It’s really difficult to tell what many of them stand for, other than re-election.

Rich James’ column appears on Fridays.



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