Nepotism Law May Affect Local Officeholders

A state law passed fairly recently may start having implications for elected officials in Starke County.

House Enrolled Act 1005 states that an individual may not hold elected office if they are working, or volunteering, for a fire department providing services to that unit of government. The language may have consequences for several individuals about to serve in county, city, and township government.

According to 5th District State Senator Ed Charbonneau, who was a sponsor of the “Conflict of Interest” bill, it’s an unfortunate situation.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about an individual that may be an employee of a governmental unit and then also be sitting on the board that makes decisions on things like their pay,” says Charbonneau.

Charbonneau says the law initially “grandfathered” elected officials serving when the law was passed. Re-election, such as November’s cycle, would then put the constraints into place.

According to the statutory language, the individual elected to office is considered to have resigned from their fire department position once they have assumed office.

Brad Hazelton is one of several officeholders that also serve as a firefighter in Starke County. He was recently elected to the County Council and serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Davis Township Fire Department.

Hazelton says county legal counsel has reviewed the matter.

“I think the law is designed for bigger entities in Starke County where the actual fire departments are paid. Not, persay, for us where we’re volunteer,” says Hazelton.

County Attorney Martin Lucas could not be reached for comment.

According to Hazelton, Lucas concluded that because Starke County does not preside over the individual fire departments, it exempts him and others from the legislation.

Hazelton said multiple times that he would abstain from any votes that could be seen as a potential conflict of interest should one arise.