Election board says yes to former NAPA building for some functions, details like security to follow

At a joint meeting of the Monroe County election board and county commissioners on Monday, election board members voted 3-0 to accept the use of the former NAPA auto parts building at 3rd and Walnut streets for some election functions.

The motion also included the acceptance of the north end of the Showers building on Morton Street for possible election division use.

The specific uses that will be made of the respective spaces have not yet been nailed down. Of the two buildings, the more likely to be established as an early voting satellite location is the former NAPA building.

In order to establish it as an early voting satellite location, the election board would need to approve a resolution on that question early next year.

Approving such a resolution now would not have any meaningful impact. That’s because under state law, such a resolution is effective only through the calendar year in which it is approved by the election board.

The election division will also continue to occupy its current space in the first floor of the old Johnson Hardware building at Monroe and 7th Streets, aka Election Central.

The election board has asked to be allocated the whole Johnson Hardware building. That’s a request that county commissioners have not granted—because they don’t see a clear solution for placement of the probation department. The probation department occupies the part of the Johnson Hardware building not allocated to elections.

The election board’s green light on Monday for the former NAPA building gives some degree of certainty for planning purposes. The county’s facility and fleet manager, Greg Crohn, can now start to dial in the kind of renovations the building will need, in order to accommodate election division uses in 2022.

The former NAPA building is currently empty. The real estate was acquired with an eye towards using it for the planned expansion of the convention center. It’s owned by the Monroe County Convention Center Building Corporation.

Among the needed modifications to the building will be certain security measures—cameras and locks, among other things.

At Monday’s meeting, commissioners and election board members alike stressed the importance of security for the 2022 election cycle.

In the absence of Julie Thomas, doing most of the talking for the commissioners was Penny Githens, who said, “We want to secure the elections. We want them to go forward as smoothly as possible, and as securely as possible.”

Election board member and county clerk Nicole Browne put it this way: “The bottom line, of course, is that I would imagine—based on national news coverage—election security and election integrity are going to be paramount.”

Allowable reasons for executive sessions

Some friction emerged late last week over the way election security systems would be discussed, when the election board prepared to give the required notice for an executive session under Indiana’s Open Door Law.

The implementation of security systems is one of the purposes spelled out in Indiana’s Open Door Law as an allowable topic for an executive session. An executive session is one that is closed to the public.

The election board intended to hold an executive session on Monday, about the implementation of election security measures at the NAPA and Showers buildings, and the use of those buildings. The 48-hour notice requirement meant that the election board needed to have the details squared away by Thursday, at the same clock time as the executive session would be held on Monday.

Instead of an executive session, the election board wound up giving public notice of a work session, which was open to the public. The work session was held just before the joint meeting with commissioners.

At Monday’s joint meeting, election board chair Shruti Rana asked commissioner Githens what had prompted last week’s communication to election board members from county attorney Lee Baker, about the election board’s planned executive session.

In Baker’s email, a portion of which Rana read aloud on Monday, Baker distinguished between the purpose of discussing the implementation of security systems and the purchase or lease of real property.

The election board could convene an executive session based on implementation of security systems, but not for purchase or lease of real property—because an election board does not have the power to lease or purchase real property, according to Baker.

Rana said, “I guess I’m very confused about why we were requested to not have an executive session, because we noted that we wanted to discuss security.”

Rana continued, “Commissioner Githens, can you let us know if you had reached out to the attorney or just why there was a request that we not have our executive meeting to discuss security concerns?”

Asked to weigh in by Githens was county attorney Margie Rice, who attended Monday’s meeting. Rice stated, “Having a conversation about security is not one of the stated exceptions to the Open Door Law.”

Rice continued, “There are very limited reasons to have an executive session—you can, for litigation, you can, to discuss employment decisions. There’s a few other exceptions. I have never heard of an exception for discussing security.”

Challenging Rice’s statement was the new Republican Party appointee to the election board, Donovan Garletts, who last week had attended a three-day conference for election administrators.

Garletts reported that he’d spoken to the state’s public access counselor (Luke Britt) about executive sessions on the topic of security systems and purchase or lease of real property.

About Rice’s contention that the Open Door Law (ODL) doesn’t allow for executive sessions to discuss security, Garletts said, “That statement is demonstrably false.” He added, “I apologize, and I hate to come off so strong, but that’s completely false.”

Garletts continued, pointing out that Indiana’s ODL states that security can be discussed in an executive session [IC 5-14-1.5-6.1 ]:

Executive sessions
Sec. 6.1.

(b) Executive sessions may be held only in the following instances:
(1) Where authorized by federal or state statute.
(2) For discussion of strategy with respect to any of the following:
     (A) Collective bargaining.
     (B) Initiation of litigation or litigation that is either pending or has been threatened specifically in writing. As used in this clause, “litigation” includes any judicial action or administrative law proceeding under federal or state law.
     (C) The implementation of security systems.
….

Garletts also appealed to his past familiarity with the ODL as a school administrator and a member of redevelopment commission in northern Indiana. “Never have I heard so much pushback against an executive session, when they fall very clearly within the narrow scope of what’s acceptable in an executive session,” Garletts said.

In contrast to the security issue, which is clear cut, the question of real property purchase or lease, is a “bit of a gray area,” Garletts said. “It’s my understanding that we do pay for not only renovations, in the past, but leasing of buildings or whatever that might be,” Garletts said.

In any case, the public access counselor and officials from the Indiana Election Division had said for executive sessions on security issues or acquisition of real estate, that there was “no issue whatsoever,” according to Garletts.

Rather than argue the point late last week, given the time crunch, Garletts said he had weighed in for changing the planned executive session to a work session.

The conversations about space allocation for elections—which have unfolded between county commissioners and the election board since May of this year and earlier—have been contentious.

Monday’s controversy over executive sessions aggravated an already rocky relationship.

Rana said on Monday, “We really want to look at compromises, solutions, all sorts of different things.” She continued, “And all we’ve gotten is hostility from the commissioners—to the point where we set out a legally acceptable basis for the executive session that we want to have—to discuss pressing security concerns, which we know will be pressing for the upcoming elections—and we just get threats thrown back in our faces.”

Rana said, “I’m just appalled at that whole scenario…”

At one point, Githens said, “I would like to bring us back to where we can have agreement on stuff,  instead of the kind of tone that we have right now.”

Githens asked Rana if there was a specific proposal for the use of buildings that the election board wants to use in 2022. Githens said, “We do want to work with you. We can’t move forward unless we know what you want to do at this point.”

That eventually led to a vote by Rana, Garletts and Browne to accept the offer of space in the Showers building and the former NAPA building for the 2022 elections.

From the election board’s perspective, the solution is not ideal. Browne put it, “This is a band-aid on a bigger issue. We can make this work in 2022, we can make a satellite work, we can make everything work… We have an amazing team who knows how to make it work.”

Satellite early voting locations

Over the course of the months-long discussion about election space, county commissioners have urged the election board to think about establishing additional satellite voting locations. That’s something that requires a unanimous vote of the partisan-balanced election board.

The election board consists of an appointee from the Democratic Party, one from the Republican Party, and the county clerk. Monroe County clerk Nicole Browne is a Democrat.

On Monday, Browne said she wants to discuss satellite voting locations at the election board’s first meeting of 2022. Specifically, she wants to consider the NAPA building as a possible satellite early voting location. Other locations that might serve voters in rural areas could also be a part of the mix.

But Browne is not looking to eliminate the Election Central as an early voting location. The advantage offered by Election Central as an early voting location is the fact that voter registration is located in that building.

Browne put it like this: “I’m not interested in moving it all out of Election Central, because the election supervisor’s office is there and the voter registration office is there.”

Browne elaborated, saying that if a voter encounters a problems with their registration, “We can stop right then and send them just a few feet away to the voter registration office to try to work through those.”

In order to establish a location like the former NAPA building as a satellite early voting location for 2022, the election board would need to take a unanimous vote next year. That’s a fact that Browne clarified with state election division officials on Monday morning, she told her colleagues on the election board.

Even if the board were now to adopt a resolution establishing the NAPA location as an early voting location, state election law would allow it to be valid only for the next couple of weeks.

Here’s how the law reads: “A resolution adopted under this section expires January 1 of the year immediately after the year in which the resolution is adopted.”

When the first  election board meeting of 2022 is officially scheduled, it will appear on the county’s online calendar.

One thought on “Election board says yes to former NAPA building for some functions, details like security to follow

  1. Security is always a reason for an executive . Who in their right mind would discuss security in public where someone could then compromise it.

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