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Burns Harbor clerk-treasurer, town council member resign, citing concerns about fire department

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Jane Jordan was Burns Harbor’s town clerk for 20 years and her husband, Kurt, started his first term on the town council in January.

The two, both Democrats, submitted their letters of resignation, effective immediately, to the Porter County clerk on Wednesday. The nearly identical letters, save for the name of office, state simply, “This letter is to notify you of my resignation… effective immediately.”

What precipitated the resignations has left some officials puzzled at least off the record, but, according to the Jordans and town officials, began brewing back in February.

“There was conversation about (the Jordans resigning), maybe in mid-February, but it was all whispers through the town,” said Roseann Bozak, vice president of the five-member town council, which is elected at-large.

Jane Jordan said she resigned — and Kurt said he followed — because she was concerned that the fire department was billing residents for services provided by their tax dollars and couldn’t get the records she needed from fire officials to see what the billing was for or where the money was going.

Fire officials said the bills, sent to insurance companies for semi-trucks and similar accidents that require cleaning up spilled oil and other materials, have been going out since the early 2000s from the town’s fire corporation, with funds being used to reimburse the volunteer fire department for material and other costs.

The billing is permitted under state statute, said Ryan Nowacki, who started as fire chief in January and cited Indiana Code.

“Any requests we did get (for records about the fee), I believe we filled them or are looking into them,” he said. “We have nothing to hide.”

In an email follow-up to a phone interview, Bozak said Jane Jordan had the council’s support as well.

“To the best of my knowledge there was not any pushback to Jane and she did have the support of the council and the fire department during her investigation,” she said.

Highland, Indiana resident DJ Lopez takes his skateboard down the Burns Harbor leg of the Marquette Greenway Trail shortly after a celebration of its opening on, June 4, 2021. (Kyle Telechan/for the Chicago Tribune)
Highland, Indiana resident DJ Lopez takes his skateboard down the Burns Harbor leg of the Marquette Greenway Trail shortly after a celebration of its opening on, June 4, 2021. (Kyle Telechan/for the Chicago Tribune)

Jane Jordan took office in January 2004 and Kurt Jordan did so in January. Kurt Jordan said he ran for one of the council seats last year because he was concerned about a new trash fee, when property taxes paid for trash removal and taxes didn’t go down accordingly, and because of how much the town’s redevelopment commission was spending on consultants for projects that never came to fruition.

He served on the RDC after he was elected but stopped going to both council and RDC meetings after February because he was frustrated with how the council handled his wife’s look into fire department spending.

“We tried to get the council to take some action and they declined,” he said. “I could not, with a clean conscience, stay there. It was unacceptable what happened.”

In addition to the billing, Kurt Jordan said the fire department dragged its feet in supplying information about department salaries needed to comply with a workman’s comp insurance audit.

Jane Jordan said the atmosphere in the town had evolved to a point where she didn’t feel she could continue to work there because of “a hostile environment.”

“I took an oath of office to follow the law and it has caused me to have to make some difficult decisions,” she said, adding employees have refused to provide the documents she needs to perform her job duties, including investigating billing by the fire department.

Billing by the fire department for calls can only be done in certain circumstances and through procedures established by state statute, she said, and requires approval of the town council as well as an annual report of that billing and how the department used the funds.

“They’re refusing to do that,” Jane Jordan said of the fire department, adding the town council refused to address the matter.

Jordan said she first learned about the billing when Nowacki took over as fire chief earlier this year after Bill Arney stepped down in the fall.

“I have been asking for other documents that weren’t provided. This is multiple things that were going on,” she said.

The ArcelorMittal steel mill (now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs) and permanently closed Bailly Generating plant, left, in Burns Harbor is seen from Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019.
Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

The ArcelorMittal steel mill (now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs) and permanently closed Bailly Generating plant, left, in Burns Harbor is seen from Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019.

She confirmed her concerns were never discussed in a public meeting, though the minutes for the Feb. 14 council meeting, the last one her husband attended, reflect at least a mention of what was going on.

Under the heading “Volunteer Fire Department Incorporation communications” was the following: “Councilman Jordan explained he requested this matter be added to the agenda several weeks ago. Since then, Attorney Patton has asked that Councilwoman (Lisa) Draves and Interim Fire Chief Nowacki meet to discuss the matter. He was good with that.”

Firefighters in Burns Harbor work as contractors to the town through the Volunteer Fire Department Incorporation, Nowacki said.

Jane Jordan said she didn’t know if the fire department was billing residents for fire calls or if the billing was for something else. She and her husband informed the town council and the fire chief that they wanted the billing reports and never received them, despite repeated requests for them.

Additionally, the Jordans said the fire department had not followed proper procedure for approval by the council for the billing.

“I cannot stand by in good conscience while our taxpayers may be billed for something they shouldn’t be billed for,” she said.

After the February town council meeting, Jane Jordan said the majority of the council didn’t feel her concerns were anything of interest and she and her husband decided to resign. That was short-lived, she said, because she wanted to make sure employees got paid and representatives from the State Board of Accounts were coming for a routine audit.

She remained at her post to give them the documents they needed and that task is now complete.

“If I have to request pertinent information multiple times to do my job and do not get cooperation, that in itself is a hostile environment. Are there other issues? Yes, but I won’t go into them,” she said.

State statute allows the fire department to bill for the cost of cleanup, Nowacki said, and those bills are sent through the fire department corporation to an insurance company.

“It can rack up in cost really, really quick,” Nowacki said, adding residents are not billed for routine fire calls, though they could be under Indiana Code.

If a large house fire took the department out of service for 12 hours, for example, Nowacki said the fire department could recoup those costs. “It could be considered but we’ve never done it that I’m aware of.”

Nowacki, the liaison between the town council and the fire corporation, said he had been working with Jane Jordan and the town council about her requests and received emails from her about her concerns that state statute wasn’t being followed, but those discussions were open-ended.

“If there was stalling or it wasn’t quick enough getting back to the clerk’s office from the fire corporation, that’s out of my hands,” he said.

Adam Friday, president of the fire corporation, said that to his knowledge, “all that information that was requested by (Jane Jordan) was provided by the incorp.”

“The fire department and the incorp is working very well with the town and at this point in time I have no comment on the Jane Jordan situation,” Friday said.

The remaining town officials said they will handle municipal responsibilities until Porter County Democratic Party Chair Don Craft selects replacements; since Burns Harbor is one precinct, Craft said there won’t be a caucus. He hopes to have that done before the council’s June meeting.

“In the interim, Town employees, with the support of the Town Council, have stepped up to fulfill the duties of the Clerk-Treasurer’s Office,” Clay Patton, the town attorney, said in a release.

The town hired a new deputy clerk-treasurer in December after the previous one, Corrine Peffers, resigned because she was elected as the town of Porter’s clerk-treasurer, Bozak said.

“She’s still getting her feet wet but she’s been a great help to the team,” she said.

Regardless of what precipitated the split, Bozak and McHargue lauded the Jordans for their work for the town.

“I appreciate all the years of service from Jane Jordan but change isn’t always a bad thing and I am looking forward to moving forward with our new Clerk-Treasurer and new council member,” Bozak said in another follow-up email. “I am hopeful that we can get these seats filled quickly and, in the meantime, the Town Council will continue to work with Town employees to get over this hurdle.”

“The Town of Burns Harbor will surely miss the experience and wisdom that Jane Jordan provided, and I would like to thank both Jane and Kurt Jordan for their years of service to the Town of Burns Harbor,” McHargue said in an email to the Post-Tribune.

Residents who more information or the forms to apply for the Burns Harbor Town Council or clerk-treasurer’s post can email Craft at don@pcindems.org, or McHargue at jenmchargue@burnsharbor-in.gov. The forms, also available on the Secretary of State website, are due to Craft by May 17.

alavalley@chicagotribune.com

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Amy Lavalley , 2024-05-11 17:00:10

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