Knox County Council

County council president Bob Lechner asks a question during the meeting on Tuesday afternoon at City Hall, 201 Vigo St.

All the new security equipment at the Knox County Courthouse will soon have two new deputies to run it after members of the county council on Tuesday gave final approving to a funding source.

Last month council members gave preliminary approval for the hiring of two deputies, but they hit pause on identifying a funding source from which to draw the money.

This month, they opted to take the necessary funds for the two salaries — about $88,000 — from the General Fund.

“Then we'll go ahead with the process of getting those deputies hired,” said Sheriff Doug Vantlin.

As far as cars and all the various equipment that goes with the hiring of a new deputy, Vantlin said he would “absorb” those costs in his own budget.

The rate at which the deputies were hired, too, is lower than it likely will be next year.

The annual salary for the two new courthouse deputies will be $44,144, a probationary rate, Vantlin said.

He did the same, he told the council, when hiring four new deputies to help cover the city of Bicknell in a deal struck with city officials there last fall for law enforcement.

Once the new deputies' probationary year is up, their salaries would then likely increase to $45,600 per year, pending county council approval.

“I think the concern is that we don't forget them (come budget time),” said council president Bob Lechner as he looked right, then left, at his fellow members. “We'll need to take care of them.”

The hiring of the two deputies brings to an end a two-year effort to improve safety at the courthouse, an effort largely led by county commission president Kellie Streeter. She originally offered to pay for the additional two deputies out of the commissioners' own budget, but the council decided to go a different route.

Much of the new safety equipment, which includes metal detectors and an X-ray machine, is already in place.

All visitors to the courthouse will soon be routed through the Seventh Street side; the Eighth Street entrance, the side visitors tend to use, will be blocked and reserved only for employees.

Recent visitors to the courthouse entering from that Seventh Street side are now met with a sign directing them through the south door.

Soon, the middle door will be closed permanently and the north door — the one closest to the courthouse ramp — will be reserved only for handicapped visitors.

A year ago, Streeter secured a $76,000 homeland security grant that paid for a majority of the security improvements. The county council three two months ago offered an additional $37,000, and county clerk David Shelton found money within his own budget to complete the cost of installing electronic doors throughout the courthouse, ones both exterior and interior.

Security vendors and contractors did a final walk-through last month, and the installation of the electronic doors is ongoing.

Once that part is complete, a vendor will set up on site and begin issuing new IDs — special badges — that will allow employees access into the courthouse and to their respective offices.

With the addition of the two new deputies, the courthouse would have five full-time officers to oversee security both at the doors and in the courtrooms.

PROCEDURAL CHANGES

The county council also on Tuesday spoke at length about proposed procedural changes in how they conduct their monthly meetings.

County attorney Andrew Porter drafted the resolution, which is similar to legislation passed by the commissioners last month.

The commissioners added to their agenda a section for public comment before they begin their regular business. Anyone wishing to speak is then limited to two minutes.

All comments, too, need to be limited to relevant subject matter and pertain to items already on the agenda.

Members of the Vincennes City Council adopted a similar measure, their's going one step further in allowing public comment both at the beginning and end of their regular meetings.

Porter said the resolution is part of a statewide trend in setting aside a time for public comment.

The Indiana Open Door Law, he said, doesn't mandate that governing bodies take public comment on issues outside an advertised public hearing.

But more and more, governing bodies are trying to make their meetings more comfortable, thereby encouraging more people to participate.

At-large county councilman David Culp, however, took issue with the resolution. He saw the 2-minute clause, in particular, as “stifling” public comment. He went on to say he didn't want to “muzzle” his constituents.

“I don't think we need something on paper that says people can only talk for 2 minutes before the meeting,” he said, adding that hearing from the public “is how we learn things.”

Culp also took issue in that a council committee wasn't formed to help draft the resolution. Porter, he pointed out at least twice, wasn't an elected official, thereby, he argued, shouldn't be drafting policy for them to adhere to.

Porter, however, said the public comment session is meant to encourage government participation, not stymie it.

If there is any “muzzle,” he said, it's the Indiana Open Door Law, which doesn't require governing bodies to allow for public comment when conducting regular business. And it doesn't hamstring the council from hearing public comment at any other time — or in extending a person's time to talk — should they deem it appropriate.

“The goal is to increase public involvement,” he said. “But to do that, you have to have an orderly process. People are often afraid to talk without rules. A consistent approach across the county would encourage people to speak up rather than hinder them.”

Newly-appointed county councilman Kevin Meyer agreed with Porter. In his recent business-related travels, he's seen many counties and municipalities implement similar policies, all in an effort to connect with their constituents, not create a wedge.

“It's not like he dreamed this up,” he said of Porter's procedural policy.

But Culp also took issue with the placement of the Pledge of Allegiance before the prayer — that is currently the order, however — and the exact numbering of recurring practices, things like taking roll and approving the agenda, that occur at the start of the meeting.

“I know this is picky, but this is something that we have to be with forever,” Culp said.

“And I still can't see what makes you an authority on writing up rules,” he told Porter, “with all due respect. I just don't think this is the way I've been taught how to do local government.”

Lechner said many of the proposed changes are due to abuses of the past, i.e. people who spoke out of turn and for inappropriate amounts of time. Much of it, too, is reflected in current county law.

Still, Lechner pointed out that if something doesn't work, the council always has the power to change it later.

Culp still took issue.

“I don't want to handicap the people coming before us,” Culp said. “Since we are the ones who live by these rules, why didn't we have a committee (to offer) input?

“I know I roll some eyebrows up here once in awhile,” he said, “but I don't really mind that.”

In the end, the council took no action on the resolution.

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