Thursday, September 19, 2002

Bickering halts students' checks

Clerk refuses to pay scholarships in Lawrenceburg

By Robert Anglen,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LAWRENCEBURG — A political squabble between the mayor and the city clerk-treasurer has frozen more than $80,000 in college scholarships for 60 Lawrenceburg High School graduates.

        Now, with only days remaining before students are supposed to pay tuition, some parents in this Ohio River town say the only way to end the constant bickering and backstabbing is to oust both of the elected officials.

        “I am not a political person,” says Susan Coffey, whose son Gary was in line for a $1,400 scholarship from the city. “It has been a cat fight that has funneled to the police department, the fire department, the school board and the City Council. There is not anyone in this city that is not fighting with each other.”

        But now students are caught in the middle of the mudslinging.

Grace Case
Grace Case
        Instead of getting scholarship checks promised by the mayor and City Council - to come out of a special revenue fund generated by Argosy riverboat casino taxes - college hopefuls this week received a terse letter from Clerk-Treasurer Grace Case saying she would not issue any checks.

        “Unfortunately, I have reason to believe that my office may not legally pay these claims,” Ms. Case wrote. “I hope that the promise of the mayor to pay you a scholarship has not created any undue burden on your current financial situation.”

        The mayor's response: “Crapola.”

        He says the City Council voted last year to use $100,000 out of the casino funds to give $1,400-$1,500 scholarships to any graduating Lawrenceburg High School senior for continuing education.

        “It's a line item in the budget,” Mayor Paul Tremain says. “It is not illegal. But (Ms. Case) has refused to make out checks. She likes to keep it stirred up. I can't explain it.”

        In her letter to students and their parents, Ms. Case says proper procedures weren't followed. She says the mayor and the council do not have the authority to issue scholarships without first setting up a non-political foundation to evaluate applications for scholarships.

        She says these scholarships are nothing more than the mayor's attempt to garner “political favors” and she wants no part in it. She insists she is not engaged in a dispute, but is protecting taxpayer money.

        “I have been here 11 years,” Ms. Case says. “But this mayor, this is his first trip down here and his last trip, too.”

        In most jurisdictions, disputes between warring politicians are settled by the city attorney, who is supposed to provide non-biased legal advice on behalf of taxpayers.

        Not in Lawrenceburg.

        “I don't go to the city attorney,” Ms. Case says. “He is appointed by the mayor and he is a butt-kisser.”

        Ms. Case has hired outside lawyers to represent her office at taxpayer expense.

        City Attorney Matt Zerbe did not return calls Wednesday.

        Rob Daniels, a lawyer with Tabbert, Hahn, Earnest and Weddle, who represents Ms. Case, says that there is “process in Indiana that must be followed” for a government to hand out scholarships. A letter from his firm to the city indicates the mayor does not have the authority to award scholarships and that a preliminary review by the State Board of Accounts concluded that the scholarships should not be paid.

        “We have instructed the clerk-treasurer not to take any action with regard to the claims,” the letter says, adding that the firm will soon issue a legal opinion to Ms. Case. “I do not believe that it is in anyone's best interest for these claims to become a political issue.”

        Mr. Daniels would not respond to any questions regarding why the city clerk is not using the city attorney.

        But Mayor Tremain says he too has consulted outside lawyers, and they tell him everything the city is attempting to do with the scholarships is above board. During an Indiana Association of Cities and Towns conference this week in Indianapolis, Mr. Tremain says he and other council members have sought out legal opinions on the issue and have been given a green light.

        “This is not just for A and B students. It's for any student who graduates and is going to college. As long as the student maintains a C average,” he says, adding there are no strings and that the money can be used for any type of continuing education. “It's equal and open to everybody. My first goal is to help the kids.”

        The class of 2002 had 93 graduates and 60 of them applied for the city scholarships. Mr. Tremain says the city's goal was to establish a foundation with $5 million from the casino fund and use interest from that money to give scholarships to every continuing student each year. This year, he says, there wasn't time to set that up, so he told the clerk to issue checks based on scholarship applications.

        The city has generated more than $52 million through taxes on the Argosy Casino, the busiest gambling boat in the world. But the money has become the focus of contentious debates among city politicians who have different visions of how it should be used.

        In the wake of competing visions, employees have been fired and rehired, a power struggle has erupted between the mayor and some members of City Council, development plans have faltered, City Council has sued Mr. Tremain and he has countersued, contracts have gone out without bid and construction jobs have gone millions over budget without any official approval.

        Ms. Case and the mayor also have traded barbs. She has accused him of breaking into her office and moving her files and equipment to the basement of the city building. Mr. Tremain contends that she has overstepped her elected authority and has failed to keep proper financial records.

        For Ms. Coffey, the bottom line is that her son will likely forgo the scholarship he was depending on to fund a criminal justice degree at Vincennes University this year.

        “Criminal justice, isn't that ironic,” she says. “I am livid. This is just going too far. What are we going to do?”

        In the next breath, she answers her own question.

        “I think the only thing to do is to get a referendum going,” Ms. Coffey says. “We need to get these people out of there.”


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