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Lawsuit challenges Porter County Council redistricting

Updated: February 3, 2014 3:44PM



A lawsuit filed Monday in LaPorte Circuit Court seeks to toss out the fast-track approval of a county redistricting plan approved by the Porter County Board of Commissioners earlier this month, or to delay the primary and general 2014 elections until the matter can be resolved.

The suit, filed by attorney Edward Hearn on behalf of District 2 County Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-South Haven, and Porter County residents Danielle Cauley, Ryan Bailey, Patrick Heeley II, and Brian Smolnicky, alleges the commissioners’ approval of the new County Council districts on Dec. 17 flies in the face of state redistricting laws by creating two noncontiguous districts.

At that meeting commissioners suspended the rules to pass the ordinance on both first and second reading. The suit alleges proper notification of that meeting was not made.

The redistricting, which is required by state law in the year following the 10-year U.S. Census, moves Rivas from the 2nd District to the 4th District. Republican Jim Polarek is the District 4 councilman. Rivas, who held a campaign fundraiser earlier this fall shortly after announcing he would seek a second term for the District 2 seat, said he would not run against Polarek.

Candidates must declare their residency when filing for election. The first day candidates can file for the 2014 primary is Jan. 8.

Commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said she could not comment on the lawsuit because she had not yet seen it. She said commissioners tackled the redistricting this year to even out the populations as required by law. The difference in population among districts dropped from more than 10 percent to about 3 percent.

Adams said Westchester Precinct 17 has always been by itself because it is an unincorporated area inside the City of Portage. She said redistricting is a complicated process because of the many rules that apply. Commissioners did their best to follow those rules, she said.

“Whenever you redistrict, some people are not going to like it,” Adams said.

Hearn, the attorney, said the suit quoted the statute, which calls for the districts to be contiguous. He said he was unaware of how long Westchester Precinct 17 was not in a contiguous district, but according to statute it should be.

Hearn said he expects the judge to make a ruling on Jan. 7 that would allow the 2014 primary and general election to proceed as planned unless the county commissioners take steps to delay the court’s decision.

“If the commissioners try to delay the court’s decision on Jan. 7 the election may have to be interrupted,” he said.

Commissioners started the redistricting process at the end of 2011, the year after the last census, but ran out of time. The matter came up again in mid-October, after a letter from the Association of Indiana Counties warned of a potential lawsuit if the county did not redistrict. State law says district populations must be as close as possible.

According to the suit, Indiana Code requires officials “shall by ordinance divide the county into four contiguous, single-member districts ...” The redistricting plan approved by commissioners creates a 2nd District island of Westchester Township Precinct 17, which is surrounded completely in the new map by District 1.

Plaintiffs are seeking a declaratory judgment because the districts are in noncompliance as well as a permanent injunction barring the enforcement of the ordinance. If the court does not approve the injunction, plaintiffs are seeking a stay of the 2014 primary and general elections.

A hearing on the complaint is set for 9 a.m. Jan. 7 in the court of Judge Tom Alevizos.



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