• Civic apps: Focus needed

    Gary mobile app 311 cityWant to catch a ride? There is an app for that. Want to order some food? There is an app for that. Want to improve your city? Surprisingly there is now an app for that if you live in northwest Indiana. Both the City of Gary and Crown Point now have mobile apps. The City of Crown Point app allows users to view city directories, sign up for newsletters, view event calendars, and most importantly create service requests.

    However, some of the features on the app seem to be broken and the service request feature is by far the most useful feature of this app. The City of Crown Point app allows users to upload photos of potholes, debris, or other things that need fixed around the city. The city will then process the request and make the appropriate fix for the situation. But even this feature could use some tweaking to make it more user-friendly.

    You don't have to look far to find a great example of a city service request app. The “Improve Detroit” app is a simple app that is very user friendly. Improve Detroit gives users the ability to user their current location for a service request and has a list of possible service requests. The app has a much more focused goal and executes it nicely. It also let’s users view issues that have been reported near to their location.

    I believe that making an app that is more focused on city service requests would help the usability of the Crown Point app. A focus on reporting problems could help the city more efficiently tackle civic problems. The generation coming up is one that doesn’t even want to call to get a pizza, so the chances of them calling 311 to report a problem seems pretty slim. I think that having a more user friendly 311 app could make a great difference for millennial’s view of cities in the region. It is encouraging to see that cities like Crown Point and the City of Gary at the forefront of the development of these kinds of civic apps.

    NWI Civic Apps

    @Slippy_Jake talks #nwIndiana #civic #apps in this #video segmenthttp://bit.ly/1ZByhVa#tech #mobile #society

    Posted by Duneland Innovators on Sunday, December 27, 2015
  • Civic engagement will help Lake Station move forward

    The City of Lake Station began to turn the page on the Keith Soderquist era this week with the Democratic caucus selection of former Mayor Dewey Lemley as interim mayor.

    “I want to move the city on from a bad experience,” Lemley told the Post-Tribune. Voters will elect a new mayor in November between Democrat Christopher Anderson and Republican Ed Peralta.

    I got the chance to cover the Lake Station City Council for a brief time, and as many Northwest Indiana reporters can tell you, there aren’t many cities like it when it comes to an engaged citizenry.

    More often than not, municipal meetings are sparsely attended affairs with limited discussion. Councils and boards run through routine agenda items as reporters try to figure out the best angle for their story.

    Lake Station has always been different. I got a sense of that the first time I covered a meeting. At the time, Soderquist was a mayoral candidate, and during the discussion portion of the meeting, a City Council candidate called for his resignation over electioneering charges. A spirited back-and-forth ensued with random comments interjected by citizens in the audience. It would be no problem pulling a good story together. 

    As I was gathering post-meeting quotes, a city official volunteered that a group of them were heading over to the Dairy Queen and asked if I wanted to come along. It’s not the kind of offer a reporter usually gets, but like I said, Lake Station is different. It’s a city where council meetings are as much a social event as they are an administrative task.

    I covered several more meetings during the transition between the Shirley Wadding and Soderquist administrations. They were always well attended with plenty of discussion and council members who seemed to relish the sparring with citizen commenters.

    I’ve spoken with others who covered Lake Station and had similar experiences. Despite the recent difficulties, the city has the asset of citizens who are engaged with their government and aren’t discouraged from voicing their displeasure. That energy will serve the city well in this transition.

    And if you’re wondering, I did politely decline the Dairy Queen invitation -- the sacrifices we make in the name of deadlines.

  • Don't forget to vote tomorrow!

    Tomorrow is Election Day. You might not have known that because the next Presidential election isn’t until next year, and we aren’t electing a governor or any members of Congress here in Indiana. Between that and the low turnout in our state, I’ll take it upon myself to remind you to get out and vote.

    If you didn’t know that there are elections tomorrow, I’m guessing you don’t know who or what we’re voting for, either. So, here’s a helpful little tool to let Indiana residents know what they will see on their specific ballot. There are still several hours left to do a bit of your own research to find out about the candidates and issues. The site can also help you check your registration status and find your polling place.

    If you’re not registered at the moment, well, it’s frankly too late to participate in the process this year due to Indiana's policies. So instead, take this opportunity to get registered, so you’ll be able to vote in next year’s Presidential primaries and election.

    I know some might be thinking, “Oh, these are just meaningless small town elections!”, or “What difference does it make if I vote? Both sides just argue and nothing ever gets done.” The latter statement might have some truth to it, at least at the federal level. But while Washington gridlock doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon, the small local elections are the ones that will matter in the long run. A policy idea or political movement can catch on at the local level, and if successful, can spread to other communities, then on to the state or even national level. With the astronomical amounts of money it costs to run a big campaign these days, the local level could be the only place where new ideas can really enter the conversation.

    I know, I’m sounding like a wide-eyed, idealistic character in an educational cartoon. But it’s true. Furthermore, the people who get elected govern both voters and nonvoters alike, so it’s in your best interest to vote for the candidate who would govern better.

    So, get registered if you’re not, and vote tomorrow if you are. Oh, and don’t forget to bring your driver’s license.

  • In defense of the modern library

    This summer, Gary seemed to have a plan to refurbish and reopen their long-shuttered main library branch. Such a plan, however, would have come at the cost of the closure of two of the Gary Public Library’s other branches.

    Now, of all the issues at large and in Northwest Indiana specifically, libraries might not even be on most peoples’ radar. But while it might be far from peoples’ minds, this recent turn of events is a fitting time to discuss the much-overlooked importance of libraries. The fact is, in this day and age, they’re more than simply a place to borrow books, or DVDs now that most video rental places are gone.

    Think of all the things you do on the Internet nowadays: bills, taxes, shopping, communication, work and research. The entire argument for net neutrality in the last year or two was centered on the fact that the web is an essential tool of life. So it might shock you that a U.S. Census report from 2013 revealed that more than a quarter of U.S. households lack any Internet connection. For that segment of the population, the library is vital as one of only a few ways to stay connected to the online world of today.

    The programs put on by libraries also fill many needs, in addition to the staples of story time and other children’s activities and features on arts and culture for adults. Programs aimed at adults like job-searching or resume writing can be valuable for patrons without Internet access or the funds to find such help elsewhere. Same goes for educational sessions for students of all ages. The library also makes a good meeting spot for outside organizations.

    Gary’s plan to refurbish the main library was tabled, and the two branches will remain open for now. I’d say it’s the slightly better of the two outcomes, because two locations stay open instead of being sacrificed for one. But it’s unfortunate Gary is in the position where it must choose which library branches it must close or keep open. A strong library is an asset for any community, but especially for resource-starved ones like Gary.

  • In Valparaiso, dialogue replaces divisions

    In our politically divided world, we're accustomed to divisions being drawn. Tribes align themselves on opposite sides of each conflict, fueled by social media and partisan news outlets.

    So when the actors in a controversy choose to come together in compromise rather than escalating their differences, it's a refreshing change.

    Tuesday in Valparaiso, the walls built up in the aftermath of a controversial arrest came down in dramatic fashion when a joint statement was released by Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds, Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas and local resident Darryl Jackson Jr. The statement, which you can read here, demonstrates civility, understanding and empathy too often missing from discussions of the difficult topics of race and policing.

    Jackson, an African-American, was arrested on Aug. 29 for failure to identify himself and resisting arrest after police approached him on a residential street in Valparaiso. A subsequent dashcam video of the arrest sparked the familiar script for such incidents. Fellow police, including Sheriff Reynolds, defended the actions of the white officer. Activists and Valparaiso University students criticized the officer's handling of the incident. Mayor Costas, in questioning the arrest, brought a hail of criticism from police groups.

    In such a highly charged atmosphere, it's not easy to lower your defenses, listen to the other side and admit your own shortcomings. But that's what came out of a collaborative dialogue that should be a model for others.

    Jackson said, "In the midst of my fear, I was not the best version of myself," and offered "sincere apologies" to the arresting officer, Sheriff Reynolds and members of the Porter County gang task force. Reynolds accepted Jackson's apologies, acknowledging "we know that we can do better, too."

    Costas stated his regret that his comments offended some in the law enforcement community and saluted Jackson and Reynolds for the outcome. "The strength of a community is tested by its ability to work through tough issues in a spirit of understanding and respect. This joint statement is a shining example of that spirit."

    I'm reminded of something that the late journalist Cole Campbell observed about conflict resolution. "Everyone has their trap," Campbell said, meaning before you assume the worst about someone, consider the circumstances that motivate their actions and opinions. Understanding and empathy are more effective tools than righteousness and anger.

  • It's the ISTEP, stupid!

    You might have missed it in the news, but one of the most wide-reaching laws of the new millennium, one that had support across the political spectrum and was touted as a major achievement that would fix our education system, might be dying a quiet death.

    The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, was an extensive piece of legislation with many different parts. But one thing about it everyone seems to agree on is that its strong focus on standardized testing was ineffective, putting tremendous pressure on schools and teachers without effectively teaching students.

    Well, almost everyone.

    Indiana just signed a law instituting stricter standards for ISTEP testing. Specifically, there’s a much higher pass-fail cutoff, which it’s estimated will immediately increase the percentage of students failing - which will, in turn, drop letter grades for certain schools. Which could, if such ratings persist, cause control of said schools to go from their community to the state.

    To a cynical observer, considering the state’s unfavorable policies toward public education since the Mitch Daniels administration, this could be construed as a way to force public schools into state control or closing. But even if these new standards were meant to positively motivate students and schools, it’s hard to see that happening after it’s been tried already, especially since Indiana’s new standards are higher than NCLB.

    Why is the state taking this route? They rebuffed federal standards by rejecting Common Core, and yet now they’re doubling down on the standardized testing focus that was a pillar of NCLB.

    The answer, I think, is that much anti-Common Core fervor is less about finding an effective education policy than a rallying cry for small-government ideologues. Well, it doesn’t matter if it comes from the state level or federal level: when something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And does anyone want to argue more standardized testing and stricter accountability standards have worked?

  • It's time to talk about drug policy reform in Indiana

    In 2014, in response to a growing heroin problem, some Porter County police began carrying naloxone, a drug that curbs the effects of opioid overdoses. Now, with heroin-related deaths in Lake County numbering in the dozens over the last three years, the county is considering equipping their police with naloxone kits.

    Last year, you might also recall, saw an HIV outbreak downstate caused by needle-sharing. This resulted in the establishment of the state’s first needle exchange program.

    These actions by the state and local authorities are the right things to do. Still, they are responses to problems becoming too big to ignore, as opposed to a solution that fixes the overall problem. Indiana’s drug laws are still firmly of the mentality of the old War on Drugs, a policy that seems to have less proponents every year.

    In creating the needle exchange, Governor Pence and Republicans swallowed their strong anti-drug stance and acknowledged such a measure was necessary. That was a good start, but this opportunity should be taken to address major drug policy reform as a whole, specifically treating drug use as a crime instead of a health issue.

    We wouldn’t be the first state, either. One of the most high-profile states to do so was New Jersey, which replaced prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses with court-ordered treatment. Notably, this change had bipartisan support in the state and was signed into law by Republican Governor and current Presidential candidate Chris Christie.

    It might be early to judge New Jersey’s success or failure. However, the country of Portugal notably reformed their drug policy top to bottom in 2001. The results weren’t perfect (no policy is, really), but certainly much more effective than a hard-line drug war.

    In New Jersey, treatment for one person costs about half that of incarcerating them. But more than saving tax dollars, it’s simply more humane to treat an addict and give them another chance at life, rather than locking them away and forcing them to live with the stigma of a felony conviction when they leave prison.

    I doubt you’ll see much debate about this subject in this Indiana’s gubernatorial campaign this year, but it’s a conversation that should be had.

  • Policy sets up Indiana for poor voter turnout

    Next month, voters in Indiana's cities and towns will go to the polls -- as long as they're already registered to vote.

    In Indiana, voter registration ends 29 days before an election, which is on the high end of advance registration requirements among states. Thirteen states currently offer same-day voter registration. As the map here shows, all those states had substantially higher voter turnout than Indiana in 2014.

    In fact, Hoosier voters turned out in historically low numbers in 2014, 28 percent, the lowest in the nation. That fact has led to questions about why voter apathy is so high and what can be done to remedy it.

    Some of those questions lead to the mechanics of getting to vote: early registration requirements, along with our 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. polling schedule, among the shortest in the nation.

    Other questions lead to the lack of competitive Congressional races. To the victor go the spoils, and Statehouse Republicans in the majority have drawn Congressional lines to favor GOP wins. Among the changes in 2011 was the shifting of Democratic-leaning Michigan City from the 2nd District to U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky's 1st District. Getting those voters out of the 2nd District helped Republican U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski win what had been a swing district in previous election cycles.

    And then there's Indiana's 2005 voter ID law, which has been the model of similar laws enacted in other states. Passed with the intent of preventing voter fraud, the law did nothing to address the proven voter fraud that occurred in Indiana. You'll remember the 2003 East Chicago mayoral primary between Robert Pastrick and George Pabey that was nullified due to rampant absentee ballot fraud. Whatever the intent of Voter ID, it doesn't help turnout numbers.

    If you want to increase voting, proven solutions are out there. Oregon, which had 70 percent voter turnout in 2014, holds all elections with mail-in ballots and recently passed a law to automatically register any adult that has had an interaction with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    Public officials may pay lip service to promoting voter turnout, but public policy tells a different story. In Indiana, increasing the number of voters is just not a priority.

  • Power of incumbency can be a drag

    There's no better election night than one when you're an unopposed incumbent, right?

    Don't tell that to Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas.

    The Republican who will get a fourth term leading the city, was nonetheless disappointed by the results of Tuesday's municipal elections. What had once been an all-Republican City Council will be split between four Republicans and three Democrats.

    "The low voter turnout was a huge impact for us," Costas told Times reporter Rob Earnshaw. Indeed, turnout in Porter County barely topped 20 percent. With no mayor's race on the line, Costas' supporters may very well have stayed home, opening the door to the new Democratic faces. In this case, Costas would have been better off to have a Democratic challenger to stoke turnout on his side.

    The turnout in Porter County was heavy compared to Lake County's 15 percent and LaPorte County's 13 percent. It's the kind of turnout that usually spells good things for incumbents and Northwest Indiana's mayors enjoyed a stellar evening. Leaders in East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Hobart, LaPorte and Michigan City all easily won re-election. East Chicago's Anthony Copeland and Hammond's Tom McDermott Jr. both had more than 90 percent of the vote. Crown Point's David Uran was unopposed. The one tight mayoral race was in Portage, where Republican Mayor James Snyder edged Democrat Brendan Clancy by just 225 votes. It was a hard-fought victory for Snyder in a city that leans Democratic.

    Uncompetitive or unopposed races aren't just a drag on voter turnout. In East Chicago, 3rd District Councilman Robert "Coop" Battle won his unopposed race from his cell in the Lake County Jail, accused of killing a man. John Cantrell, the attorney for Battle (who is also facing federal drug charges), said he was disappointed by calls for Battle to resign his council seat. Obviously, in Northwest Indiana, you're presumed re-elected until proven guilty.

    Finally, under the category of "every vote counts," just 37 Kouts voters were enough to give Democrat Nicole Markovich a one-vote victory over Republican Kevin Salyer for the at-large Town Council seat. Do you think there's a friend or family member of Salyer feeling guilty for staying home?

    Hopefully, for the vast majority of Region voters who stayed home, this guilts you enough to get you to show up for the 2016 primaries in May.


  • Refugees are part of our country's heritage

    Last week, Indiana once again made the national news for the wrong reasons.

    A family of refugees from war-torn Syria, scheduled to be settled in Indianapolis after a three-year wait, was diverted to Connecticut at the last minute after the state announced that they would not be allowing any Syrian refugees. Unlike with the RFRA earlier this year, Indiana’s no outlying pariah on this, as 30 others states said the same thing. That doesn’t make it right, though, and the fact that this hasn’t seen the same level of outrage is frankly troubling.

    I understand that people are on edge about ISIS after the Paris attacks. However, consider a couple facts:

    • It takes up to several years for refugees to be vetted and granted asylum in the U.S.
    • In the case of Paris, most of the attackers were European.
    • The 9/11 hijackers entered the country legally on regular visas.

    None of this necessarily completely precludes the possibility of an extremist entering the country disguised as a refugee, but it seems rather impractical and improbable. On the other hand, closing the country to all Syrians will certainly deny the chance at a normal life to families fleeing those very terrorists.

    Remember after 9/11 when everyone said “the terrorists win” if we did or didn’t so something? Well, I don’t think terrorists have the power to destroy America, as far as the ideas and values for which we stand. Only we can do that by choosing to succumb to our fears and abandon those values.

    We chose to build this security state leviathan that threatens the right to privacy. We chose to disregard morality and civil rights by adopting torture during the War on Terror. Terrorists attacked us, but they didn’t force us to do either.

    And now with this refugee situation, we face another choice about the fabric of our identity. While racism and anti-immigrant sentiment have existed throughout our history, the fact is that our country always has always taken in those looking for a better life. That is who we are, and it is a moral good. And for it to end would be a tremendous moral loss.

    Moreover, this Thursday begins the time of year about giving and spreading goodwill to your fellow man. Well, if we can’t do so for those who really need it, the whole season seems rather meaningless.

  • The easiest thing you can do today…that could make a difference

    To vote in the Indiana Primary on May 3, today is the deadline to register. And this year, the primary might actually matter.

    Well, it always matters. Sure, it can seem like a mere formality at times, such as when candidates for certain offices run unopposed. Or, since our primary is on the later end of the schedule, if the Presidential nominations are already decided and several people on the ballot aren’t even still running. But in either case, the votes are still counted.

    This year is different, however, as both major party races are far from settled. The battle for the Democratic Presidential nomination is still competitive, and since Democratic pledged delegates are awarded proportionally, every vote truly does count. On the Republican side, it realistically looks more like a contest between Donald Trump and a brokered convention at this point than between him and any other candidate. Still, every last vote matters in that contest as well.

    Aside from the national elections, there's still the matter of choosing candidates in state and local elections. Here's a little refresher you can use to familiarize yourself over the next four weeks if you're unfamiliar with them.

    Turnout for the Indiana Primary has been pretty low in Presidential election years, usually hovering around 20 percent since the start of the millennium. The one exception was in 2008, when Hillary Clinton won a close contest in the state, but not by enough of a margin to weather the campaign of then-Senator Barack Obama. Our state played a part in what was widely considered the last stand of the Clinton campaign by pundits and the media.

    And the turnout form that Primary? 40 percent.

    The Republican race that year was already decided before the Indiana Primary. This year, with both parties having incentive to get out and vote, there's no reason we can't top that.

    So, if you’re eligible to vote but not registered, do so. You don’t even need to go out on this wintry day to do it.

    If, however, you’re reading this when Monday has passed…well, register to vote anyway, so you can do so in November.

  • The State of Referendum

    If you have driven around the region these last few years during the month of April, you may have seen signs in yards asking voters to vote “yes” on a school referendum.  

    In 2008, the state legislature passed a law that changes the ways that a district is able to levy taxes for the operation of schools within the district or for the cost of construction.  Since that time, several districts within the state have had referendum votes for small tax increases to offset the limitations set by the law. I live in Hebron and it took two separate elections to pass one in our school district.

    The first vote in 2013 failed by only four votes- 547 to 543.  The defeat resulted in Metropolitan School District of Boone Township having to make several cutbacks.  The greatest of which was the termination of six teachers, which meant some classes would be overcrowded.  In a town with nearly 2,500 residents, voter apathy may have played a role in the measure being defeated the first time.  In our family's case, we did not vote in this election, and thus did not vote for the measure at all.  At that time, our home was not affected by passage or defeat, since our oldest child was not yet in school. 

    The measure did pass the following April, and it did so by just 23 votes.  The passed measure called for an increase of $0.21 per $100 of assessed property value.  This meant that a home with an assessed value of $135,000 would see an annual tax increase of around $130.  We did vote yes on the second referendum, because our son was about to begin Kindergarten that following August, so we wanted to ensure we were investing in his education.  On his first day of school, his class size consisted of only 22 children.  

    These two elections brought out much emotion on opposing sides of the measure.  For us, we were looking out for what we felt was in the best interest of our children.  For a couple in town on a fixed income, whose children have already been through school, I can certainly understand the reason for them voting no.  Although these referendums are fairly new, it is still too soon to tell if there will be a long-lasting impact. In the case of our district, seeing exceptional grades on our son’s report card is a great start.   


  • Two 911s might not be better than one.

    You’d think that there would be some things out there that are immune to political partisanship. You know, like our emergency services.

    You’d think that, but apparently not.

    In case you haven’t been following, Indiana passed a law stipulating that each county in the state can have no more than two 911 dispatch centers, with the deadline to consolidate their call centers being the first of this year. Lake County missed that deadline, but has been working to establish one main call center in Crown Point, with a backup center in East Chicago.

    Most of the towns in the county signed on to this plan, but Schererville and Cedar Lake have held out every step of the way. Even when the state started withholding millions in funding to try to force their hand, they still won’t go along. Now, even though the Lake County E-911 center will be operational soon, the two towns are still operating their own joint call center.

    It’s hard to find a reason why the two towns are refusing to cooperate. The lone argument against 911 consolidation that might be understandable is the fear that fewer dispatch centers would somehow cause a drop in service or longer response time. But even this contention falls apart when considering one big, simple factor: technology.

    In today’s age, "smart" mobile devices can place one’s exact location. I’ve also spoken before about how police are able to track cellular phones. Well, the upside of that creepy security state stuff is that emergency services can find you easily, and they can coordinate with cops, EMTs, and firehouses across a whole county area instantaneously.

    Years ago when the world was still mostly analog, the argument that consolidation could adversely affect emergency responses might have had some weight, but not so much today. On the contrary, one whole system with everyone working on the same page seems way more practical than two separate, independently operated ones.

    I can’t really think of another reason why to fight consolidation, other than petty politics. If that’s all it is (and to me, it seems that way), Cedar Lake and Schererville should give up this fight and go with the option that’s more efficient and effective for Lake County.