Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328

A local judge is expected to rule within five weeks on the constitutionality of a state law that could drive five Lake County municipal council members from office.

The Times

John J. Watkins / The Times – Hammond City Councilman Michael Opinker

Background:

Lake Superior Court Judge William E. Davis is weighing recent arguments for and against five city and town council members seeking to overturn a 2012 law forbidding elected officials from also being employees of the same government agency.

The Indiana attorney general’s office is defending this prohibition, which only went into effect this year.

If Judge Davis rules in their favor, Hobart City Councilman Matthew D. Claussen, New Chicago Town Councilwoman Susan Pelfrey, East Chicago Councilman Juda Parks and Hammond City Councilmen Michael Opinker and Scott Rakos can continue drawing a combined $280,000 a year in public compensation from their other jobs with their communities’ police, fire and water departments.

A court document states Claussen earned $59,722 last year as a Hobart police office, a job he has held since 1981. He was paid $13,130 a year as a Hobart city councilman, where he has served since 1995.

Pelfrey received $35,453 in compensation last year, according to the Indiana Gateway database, as office manager for the New Chicago Water Works, where she has been employed since 1991. She earned $10,348 as a New Chicago town councilwoman, where she has served 2010.

Opinker received $125,074 last year as an assistant Hammond fire chief. He’s worked at the department since 1994 and as a Hammond city councilman since 2010. He was is entitled to a council salary of $30,000.

Parks received $59,971 last year as an East Chicago police officer. He has worked for the department since 1998. He received $43,985 last year as an East Chicago city councilman, where he has served since 2007.

Rakos was to receive a combined $91,231 last year, according to Gateway, as an assistant Hammond fire chief and a member of the Hammond Port Authority board until he retired to run for the Hammond City Council. A court document states Rakos is losing more than $84,000 in pension benefits by retiring early.

Voters last fall elected Rakos to the City Council and re-elected Claussen, Pelfrey, Opinker and Parks to new terms as well.

What’s next

If Judge Davis upholds the law, four of the five say in a court document they cannot make a living on their part-time elected salaries.

A ruling in favor of the law also gives the state further impetus to pursuing other elected officials, who haven’t challenged it — but haven’t complied with it, either.

A federal judge in Hammond and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier upheld the law.  Adam Sedia, an attorney for the five, said last week he has no intention of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sedia is arguing the law unconstitutionally violates his clients’ First Amendment rights to hold public office, and for voters to have the widest choice of candidates.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said the law ensures local government can’t be corrupted by public employees with the power to give themselves raises at the public’s expense.

Zoeller said earlier, “We respect the plaintiffs’ service in their municipal governments; but the Legislature has firmly drawn the line at serving in no more than one position in a municipality at a time, and the court has upheld that statute. Serving in municipal government is a privilege and should not be primarily about the financial reward.”

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