Court Ruling Shifts Lake County Purchasing Oversight From Commissioners To Council | Federal State
CROWN POINT – The process by which Lake County purchases tens of millions of dollars each year in goods and services on behalf of its various departments and agencies is about to undergo a major transformation.
In a unique decision, the Indiana Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 on Tuesday that the seven-member Lake County Council has the authority to control both the appropriation and expenditure of taxpayers’ money, ousting the three-member County Executive’s awarding authority, known as the Board of Commissioners.
The appeals court said a 1981 Indiana statute that authorized the council to take over the county’s purchasing and data processing agencies from the commissioners remained in effect, although the council waited nearly 40 years to do so.
In addition, the court found that the commissioners’ statutory awarding powers have always been limited to the extent to which those powers have been expressly delegated to other elected officials, such as the county council.
“The council did not give itself authority to enter into contracts on behalf of Lake County; the general assembly did,” the court said.
The contractual rift between the council and the commissioners stems in part from a dispute involving Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr.
The council has repeatedly allocated sheriff-requested funds for various law enforcement equipment, including a controversial $777,557.48 Lake Michigan patrol boat, only to see commissioners decline the purchase after assessing the sheriff’s need for the equipment independently evaluated.
If the Court of Appeals ruling stands after review by the Indiana Supreme Court and the Purchase Act is unchanged by the General Assembly, the decision should allow the sheriff to bypass the commissioners’ review and move all desired equipment through a council-run district acquire purchasing agency.
Regardless Martinez received approval last month by Lake Superior Judge Stephen Scheele to complete contracts for Lake County Jail-related purchases independently of the county council and commissioners.
Ray Szarmach, a district council attorney, described and corroborated the appeals court’s opinion a judgment dated April 16, 2021 by Lake Superior Judge John Sedia as a “historic decision” for the jurisdiction of the Lake County government and the local government.
“I look forward to working with the council and seeing how this is implemented,” Szarmach said.
On the other hand, Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said in response to the ruling, “I think decades of practice is not good enough for the justice industry.”
“The state legislature now has some work to do to determine what roles each branch of county government should have. You have to make it clear enough for even a judge to understand – apparently not an easy task,” Repay said.
The appeals court’s ruling applies only to Lake County and possibly St. Joseph County if St. Joseph County Council in South Bend also takes over purchasing from the county commissioners.
That special statute which sets the rules for the administration of Lake and St. Joseph counties does not apply to the 90 other counties of Indiana.