ANDERSON — The lawsuit that divided county government for most of 2012 is now officially over, although it effectively ended last November when voters ousted two Republican County Council members and elected a Democratic majority to the fiscal body.
Last week, Boone Superior Court Judge Matthew Kincaid signed an order dismissing the case that was worked out between attorneys representing both sides in the dispute.
"I've considered it settled for a long time," said Board of County Commissioners President John Richwine, R-North District, who was instrumental in filing the lawsuit because of what he saw as draconian budget cuts the previous council enacted to close what they said was a serious budget shortfall.
Staff cuts, particularly in the Information Technology Systems department, occurred at a time when technicians were installing a new public safety computer system. The commissioners felt that the council's decisions not only hurt public safety, they encroached on commissioner authority.
Richwine said the previous council Republican majority was so ideologically driven, it refused to listen to facts presented by "people from one end of the county to the other ... They were not listening. That's a significant problem, and that's where we were on many issues."
Like Richwine, Steffanie Owens, R-South District, said filing the lawsuit was a difficult decision but the right choice given the impasse that existed between the two elected bodies.
"It was never taken lightly," she said, "But sometimes the hardest things to do are the right things to do."
County Councilman Rick Gardner, R-District 4, feels just as strong about the case as his commissioner counterparts.
He thinks the case never should have been filed. If the Republican majority had been preserved in November, he's convinced the court would have ruled in the Council's favor on every legal issue, including counterclaims that the commissioners transferred money between accounts without council authorization.
As it was, Kincaid said in a ruling last August that regardless of the council motives, it was acting within its state constitutional discretion in in cutting the county budget and setting the number of employees.
If voters disagreed with that, he added, they could give voice to their displeasure at the ballot box. Voters did just that, ousting Mike Gaskill and Mike Phipps and returning Democrats to majority.
Both sides lamented the costs associated with the lawsuit.
Bose McKinney & Evans, the Indianapolis law firm the council hired, billed the county $123,240 in legal fees in 2012-2013 (although that bill includes some legal work not related to the lawsuit), according to Madison County Auditor Jane Lyons. The commissioners' attorney, John Bowers of Fort Wayne, billed the county for $54,543 in legal fees.
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