Developing a shared vision for Brown County. Updating the zoning ordinance. Holding the state accountable for fixing roads it promised to fix.
Those were some of the topics Brown County residents asked county commissioner candidates to address at their only public forum before the election.
The three-member board of commissioners is the county’s executive body, able to make laws, enter into contracts and set policy.
Answers did not vary greatly among the four candidates seeking the two open board seats: Democrat James L. Oliver and incumbent Republican Dave Anderson in District 1, and Democrat Tricia Bock and Republican Jerry Pittman in District 3.
Pittman won over incumbent Republican commissioner Joe Wray in the primary.
Incumbent Republican commissioner Diana Biddle of District 2 has two years left on her term.
Pittman said roads and emergency services are the top concerns of county residents. He said main artery roads should be paving priorities and traffic counts should be studied.
About getting the state to pay for damage to county roads — such as Valley Branch Road, which saw heavy traffic when it was used as a detour when State Road 135 was closed in early 2015 — Pittman said that’s tough to accomplish.
Anderson said the reason the commissioners were given for Valley Branch repaving not getting done yet is that state project managers had changed. The county now has a written agreement with the Indiana Department of Transportation to pay for repairs the local highway department has made to the road in the past year and a half, but no timeline on when the state will repave Valley Branch. “It’s not right,” he said.
Oliver said he supports the decisions the current commissioners have made on road work. Short of suing the state, he said he didn’t know how to get INDOT to follow through with repairs in a timely fashion.
Bock said some patience is needed because even if the county had all the money it needed to pave all its roads, only a limited amount of paving can be done each year because of weather. She said she doesn’t trust that the state’s recent road grant program will continue and thinks the county should have a backup plan for funding road work long-term.
Two questions related to the rewriting of the county’s zoning ordinance, which may start sometime next year.
Candidates were asked what role the commissioners should have in the rewriting process. The follow-up question was how they would communicate with the boards and commissions working on various projects, such as zoning and economic development, and how they would make sure they’re all working on a “shared vision.”
Bock said the zoning ordinance needs to be revised to make vague definitions more clear. She advocated for rules about attendance for board members and regular reports back to the bodies who appointed those members.
Pittman said the county council hears reports from appointees every other month, and he plans to continue that. The problem he sees is not many people wanting to serve on boards.
On the zoning issue, Pittman encouraged everyone in the audience to read the zoning master plan when it’s drafted and give their input before it becomes law. He said he thinks a balance is possible between encouraging economic development and putting up obstructions to businesses.
Anderson said that a vacancy on the Brown County Area Plan Commission — one of the boards with a direct role in reworking the zoning ordinance — has only drawn one application in the three weeks it’s been advertised.
He said he thinks the interactions are good now among boards that work on visions for economic development — such as the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and Brown County Regional Sewer Board — and he attends some of those meetings to learn what they’re working on.
About the county commissioners’ role in zoning, though, Anderson said they don’t have much interaction with the area plan commission.
Oliver said he’s not very familiar with the zoning topic. To help both county officials and taxpayers understand what’s going on, he wants to see minutes of various county boards typed and posted on the county’s website instead of only audio files, which take hours to listen all the way through.
Another, more unexpected topic also came up at the Oct. 11 forum: How the Brown County Commissioner candidates would feel about refugees settling in Brown County.
The question, passed anonymously to moderator Julie Winn of the League of Women Voters, cited information from the Bloomington Herald-Times.
A group called Exodus Refugee Immigration has been approved for a grant to settle about 60 people from Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Bloomington in the next year, a guest column in that newspaper by Mayor John Hamilton said.
In a September H-T story, an author told the Grassroots Conservatives group that refugees could be resettled within a 50-mile radius of Bloomington.
Exodus Refugee Immigration Director Cole Varga told the Brown County Democrat Oct. 12 that settling refugees in Brown County is not part of the plan.
“The 50-mile radius that was brought up usually comes into effect in larger urban areas or if a refugee is joining a U.S. tie family already living in the area,” he said.
“The quick answer is that it is highly unlikely anyone would be placed in Brown County unless a refugee is joining a relative that lives in Brown County.”
Based on the question asked and with no other background on the situation, Brown County commissioner candidates voiced concerns about the refugee screening and resettling process.
Anderson said he didn’t want to see problems with terrorism arise here like they have in European countries. “I don’t agree with any part of that,” he said about settling refugees here, citing his background as a Marine. To that, a woman in the back said “Amen” loudly.
Pittman said he wouldn’t mind having refugees “planted next to me” as long as he was guaranteed that “they won’t be building a bomb.” However, he’s not convinced that that level of vetting is possible.
Bock’s concerns included the idea of using eminent domain to place anyone — whether a refugee or “somebody from Bean Blossom” — in a vacant property next door to her.
Varga said the assertion that Exodus Refugee Immigration would use eminent domain is “fiction.”
“We place families in apartments and rental houses and they sign the lease and pay rent every month like everyone else,” he said.
Oliver called settling refugees here “not an ideal scenario for the community” and suggested that local law enforcement or a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative monitor the situation.
“If they’re put here, they’re put here; we’ll have to deal with it,” he said.
Candidate forum schedule
The League of Women Voters of Brown County is organizing two more nights of candidate forums at which audience members can ask questions.
Both are in the Salmon Room of the County Office Building, 201 Locust Lane.
Tuesday, Oct. 18
• 7 p.m. School board candidates Marlene Barnett, Tom Jackson, Dan Harden and Stephanie Kritzer
Thursday, Oct. 20
• 7 p.m. U.S. Congress 9th District candidates Shelli Yoder and Russell Brooksbank. Trey Hollingsworth has declined to attend.
The forums for Brown County recorder, Brown County commissioner, Brown County council, State House District 65 and State Senate District 44 candidates were last week.
Live webcasts and past webcasts of the forums can be viewed on the county’s website at http://browncoin.suiteonemedia.com/web/site.aspx