4/08/2007

Drafting error? House bill would give Lake County power to condemn private land in Porter County: Chesterton IN Tribune, 4/3/07

By Vicki Urbanik

A bill that passed the Indiana House giving the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau the authority to use eminent domain outside of its home county, as well as to promote tourism beyond its borders, has prompted a harsh war of words.

Lake County CVB President Speros Batistatos said the eminent domain language was a drafting error and something that he never requested. However, he said he still strongly supports another component of the bill that would lift language banning the Lake County CVB from spending money to promote tourism in other counties.

The bill, H.B. 1166, authored by Bill Cochran, D-New Albany, was amended in a House committee, when the eminent domain language was among the changes made by the sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Chester Dobis, D-Merrillville. The bill passed the House 93-1, with all Northwest Indiana representatives voting in support.

In the Senate, the bill passed the Committee on Economic Development and Technology, but then was reassigned to the Committee on Tax and Fiscal Policy, where it appears dead.

State Sen. Vic Heinold, R-Kouts, said that today is the deadline for the committee chair, Sen. Luke Kenley, to call up bills, but that he hasn’t scheduled H.B. 1166.

“It’s dead on arrival,” Heinold said of the bill. However, Heinold also acknowledged that the language could be resurrected in the final weeks of the Legislature. “It could pop up anywhere.”

The Lake County CVB already has eminent domain authority in its home county. The House amendment removed language limiting that authority to within Lake County.

The current law also bans Lake County from spending money to promote tourism in other counties unless it agrees to establish a joint tourism bureau with at least one other adjoining county. The amendment struck that language as well, essentially giving Lake County the right to both condemn land and to spend funds on tourism anywhere in the state.

Batistatos said the Lake County CVB is unlike other CVBs, such as Porter County’s, because it is a state agency. As such, he said he doesn’t have to ask Porter County or other CVBs for permission to promote tourism on regional level.

This isn’t the first time that the tourism bureaus in Northwest Indiana have clashed over territorial issues, but Batistatos said he’s done with trying to work cooperatively with his counterparts to the east. He blamed the tourism bureaus in both Porter and LaPorte counties for making an issue out of the eminent domain language, which he said stemmed from attempts to clean up outdated language and to make it clear that the CVB is a state agency.

He said the only time he could ever foresee having to use condemnation powers is if the CVB wanted to build a new convention center and didn’t have a willing seller. He said he planned to write Dobis today asking him to remove the language that would extend the eminent domain authority outside of Lake County.

“This story is so laughable,” he said. “The conduct of my alleged peers is laughable.”

The Lake County CVB runs a top-notch tourism bureau, he said. “We’ve been drugged down by two parochial fear mongers,” he said, referring to Lorelei Weimer and Susan Bierty, the respective heads of the Porter and LaPorte county tourism agencies.

Batistatos said he now has to spend the next two days in the Indiana Legislature “putting out the fires” created by his counterparts due to their “meddling, unprofessional, paranoid and parochial” conduct. He said that no one in Porter or LaPorte counties called him to ask about the bill’s language before they began raising concerns.

“I’ve had it. My board’s had it,” he said, urging this reporter to make certain that the Porter and LaPorte counties know his phone number -- 1-800-ALL-LAKE.

He further blasted the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission, in that it “didn’t even have the guts” to endorse the state’s plans last year for a privatized beachfront hotel in the Indiana Dunes State Park or to be “visionary enough” to take a stand in support of the Illiana Expressway. The Lake County CVB, by contrast, has taken positions in support of both proposals.

“They lack the common sense to be involved in this industry,” he said of his Porter and LaPorte colleagues.

Neither Weimer nor Bietry could be reached for comment.

Eminent Domain?

To Porter County Commissioner Robert Harper, however, the issue of why the eminent domain language was included in the bill in the first place, and why no one noticed it, raises questions.

Once he became aware of the language involving eminent domain in counties outside of Lake County, Harper wrote a letter to several lawmakers asking them to ensure that the language doesn’t make it into law.

“I am always amazed when elected officials give non-elected officials the power of eminent domain,” Harper wrote in his letter.

On Monday, Harper said he finds it even more objectionable that anyone would give the authority for eminent domain to non-elected officials for use in other counties.

Harper questioned how the language passed both the House and the first Senate committee before it was noticed. “The sad story is the answer is that they probably didn’t know it was in there,” he said.

That’s true, according to State Rep. Duane Cheney, D-Portage.

Cheney said with several hundreds of bills, it is impossible for lawmakers to track all the language in every bill. “I certainly didn’t pick it up,” he said, noting that he shares one-third of a staff member with other lawmakers.

Cheney said he wouldn’t care about the eminent domain language just for Lake County if Lake County legislators want to retain it. “But I certainly would care if it crossed the border,” he said.

Cheney said it speaks well to the vigilance of people who are tracking bills on the Internet to question bills that they notice. He also said that Porter County officials have every right to voice their concerns about a proposed bill that affects their county.

Of Harper, Batistatos said that Harper is grandstanding in order “to keep his NIMBY followers.”


Chesterton IN Tribune: http://www.chestertontribune.com