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Mayor vetoes bond ordinance

By LAUREN LANGLOIS staffwriter@hammondstar.com

Mayor Pete Panepinto has vetoed the contentious ordinance calling for borrowing money to fund capital projects.

The mayor vetoed the ordinance Monday, according to city spokeswoman Lisa Lambert. The council will have the option to vote on whether to readopt the ordinance, which would require a two thirds majority or at least four votes.

According to the charter, an ordinance vetoed by the mayor is sent to the clerk who then sends it to the council at the next regular or special meeting held at least seven days after publication of the mayor's veto statement that goes into the official journal.

The council will meet today at 5:30 p.m., but the earliest the ordinance could return to the agenda is July 24.

If the council were to readopt the ordinance, it would be considered finally adopted despite the veto by the mayor. However, there is doubt among council members that the ordinance would be readopted.

The ordinance provided for the issuance and sale of revenue bonds of up to $15 million to fund capital projects. It was proposed by Council Member Jason Hood but was opposed by the administration. The council passed it 4-1 at the June 26 meeting, with only Council Member Mike Williams opposing.

Several residents packed that meeting to voice their opposition to the idea of borrowing money for capital projects, saying the debt would put the city at risk.

Before the bonding could go through, it would first need voters' approval under the city's charter.

DELAYS vs. FISCAL STABILITY

Hood and Council Member Lemar Marshall have called for borrowing funds through bonding to accelerate capital and infrastructure improvements. They say the city's pace for projects is too slow and many projects are delayed for years because the city does not provide enough money for capital improvements, such as sidewalk projects.

Hood said he has been advocating for using a bond to take on more of the city's projects in a timely fashion for about a year now, having proposed the idea at a budget hearing in 2017. However, Hood said the proposal has been repeatedly delayed by the mayor who opposes taking on the debt.

Hood accused the mayor of playing politics and said his strategy of delaying the matter has worked.

He said the closer the bond proposal gets to the municipal races in November, the less likely it will pass as it would be considered unfair to the new council members. The city council has three members (Hood, Williams and Blount) who have reached the limit of terms they can serve. Only Janice Carter-Beard has said she is seeking re-election.

"It's been politics from the administration," Hood said. "They have managed to drag it out."

He said he does not anticipate it being readopted by the council and it would be up to the new council to carry on the debate over whether to borrow money for projects.

Council President Johnny Blount said Monday, based on the vocal opposition heard at the last meeting, he does not believe the bond ordinance had a good chance of being readopted.

Council Member Mike Williams welcomed Panepinto's veto. He said the proposal attracted widespread opposition from his constituents. He is proud that the city has avoided major cuts to services and layoffs during his time on the council while being "fiscally sound." A major bond debt would have jeopardized that, he said.

Williams said he understands the desire to get more projects done quicker, but the city has to maintain its fiscal stability too.

"There has to be a balance," he said.

Marshall said the veto was disappointing. He said the proposal was about investing more in the city and thereby growing the middle class.

He said Monday he has not yet decided on how he would vote on the readoption of the ordinance when it returns to the council.

MAYORAL RACE

Marshall was running against Panepinto for mayor but on Saturday announced his decision to drop out of the mayoral race and also not seek re-election to his council seat.

The news shocked council members. Council President Johnny Blount said he did not see the change of heart coming. Hood said it "caught him off guard."

Panepinto declined to comment on Marshall's decision Monday.

Marshall said the decision was a difficult one, but ultimately he concluded he could better accomplish goals outside of elected office. He said he sees himself soon being a community organizer rather than an elected official.

In the statement he issued Saturday, he described the political climate as "volatile."

"Sadly, even when we (all of us) know the right thing to do, we don't do it in this volatile, political climate," he wrote.

Marshall said the heated bond debate played into his decision to not seek office. The June 26 meeting confirmed to him that many in the city, including the local chamber of commerce, who are not ready to embrace his vision of investing more to grow demand for the city. Instead the "pay-as-you-go mentality" prevails, he said.

Marshall said he wants the issues to be the heart of discussions, but divisive politics have distracted from the issues he wants to see addressed in Hammond, namely shrinking the footprint of poverty and growing the middle class.

He said the city should be focusing on providing opportunities to all citizens, but attention is concentrated in only some areas while others are neglected.

"I want South Pine Street to have the same quality of life as North Pine Street," he said.

The qualifying period for the mayoral race, among other races on the Nov. 6 ballot, will be July 18-20.