MUNCIE, Ind. — Todd Donati and Sherry Riggin, the candidates for the District 2 Delaware County commissioner seat, addressed a wide array of questions during a community forum on Tuesday, the first in a series of candidate forums during September.
Several community partners have created the Community Candidate Forum Series, a lineup of virtual forums during which candidates running for local, state and federal office can answer moderated questions alongside their opponents.
The virtual forums are conducted via Zoom video conferencing and broadcast on Facebook, as well as on The Star Press website.
Both Riggin and Donati have extensive government experience.
Riggin, the Republican incumbent, has served as commissioner for eight years and served 12 years on the Center Township Board.
Donati, the Democratic challenger, served three terms on the Delaware County Council in the 1990s and one term as a county commissioner 2009-2012. He also worked as the director of the Muncie Redevelopment Commission under former Mayor Dennis Tyler.
Here are some of the highlights from questions asked during Tuesday’s commissioner forum:
How well has the county handled the pandemic and what would you change?
Donati said commissioners shouldn’t have let the state take the lead on local pandemic response. In his opinion, the mask mandate took too long to establish because county officials waited for the state to implement it.
Doanti also agured the county reopened services too late and that they could have gotten county offices functioning faster following the pandemic shutdown. Ultimately, Donati said, the commissioners should have taken more of a lead.
Riggin said that there was an emergency staff meeting in early March that eventually led to the shutdown.
“Folks, this was just so new… we were doing the best we could,” Riggin said. According to Riggin, the commissioners worked closely with Delaware County Health Department officials and actually did take the lead locally.
The commissioners tried to shut down out-of-county transfers of nursing home patients to prevent the spread at local nursing facilities, but were overruled by state officials.
Riggin also disagreed with Donati’s assessment about getting county services back up and running because the courts were operating without ever fully shutting down. Changes were made to allow more video conferencing, and only priority cases were being handled for some time.
What should be the commissioners’ plan for the current jail property in downtown Muncie?
Riggin said she had been hoping to use the downtown jail as a rehabilitation facility, though that option isn’t looking as practical as it once did. Riggin said that as commissioner she’s been in talks with city officials and was ready to let them bring in potential developers for the site instead.
“We have to look to the future for what’s best for the community downtown,” Riggin said.
With the jail and courts leaving downtown, Riggin said the county building will have some room on second and third floors, but officials are already in talks with Purdue 4-H Extension and nonprofits that could utilize the space.
Donati said the commissioners’ reaction and planning for the jail leaving downtown was too slow.
“They knew for years that they were leaving and there should have been a plan,” Donati said. Instead, Donati said that months before the new jail opens, there is no decision on what to do with the current one. He also said that the jail should not have been moved from the downtown in the first place
Ultimately, Donati said he wants to see the old jail demolished so the land can be redeveloped. With his experience with the Muncie Redevelopment Commission, he said he was the clear choice to help lead that downtown redevelopment after the jail leaves.
What would be your plans for dealing with the development of the land around the new Delaware County jail complex?
Riggin said that the county had only recently obtained the land from the city following a land swap deal between the two entities. She said while there was no immediate plans, the time would come and they are already investing in that area by adding a trail system nearby.
She said the commissioners are open to suggestions of what could go on that land.
Donati said he was disappointed in the city for giving away the land in the first place. He said that under his tenure with the MRC, there were already development plans for putting in business or housing.
“If the county doesn’t have a plan why did they take it from the city?” Donati asked. “We are doing things after the eight ball.”
A plan for a housing development had been proposed by a developer and Donati, though it was struck down by the previous city council after economic incentives failed to pass. Plans for a business park were never brought forward before Donati left the MRC.
MORE ON LOCAL ELECTIONS:
How can the commissioners curb substance abuse within the county?
The commissioners have been working on several plans, according to Riggin. She said there have been conversations with organizations that could bring a rehab facility to the county. She also said the new jail could serve as a centralized part of solving addiction.
Donati went after Riggin by saying that there are promises of rehab at the new jail and they need to act on that.
“It’s something we can’t jail our way out of,” Donati said.
How will the commissioners continue to deal with the changes to Delaware County EMS?
Donati criticized Riggin and the current commissioners, saying the county should have negotiated harder with the city back when adding an extra fee to first responder runs was on the table. Theoretically, that could have stopped the city from creating its own ambulance service in the first place.
Donati said going forward he wants to get a co-op going with the towns in the outlying areas and the county service, since the city will continue to grow and harm DCEMS’s bottom line. To make the county ambulance service sustainable they have to strike new deals with outlying towns across the area.
Riggin said she was disappointed they couldn’t persuade then-Mayor Dennis Tyler to change the decision to create a city EMS service. She said the financial numbers for DCEMS were still very early, but layoffs early on have allowed the service to likely remain financially sound.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Riggin said.
How can the commissioners promote better access and transparency in local government?
Donati pushed for moving the commissioner meetings from morning to the evening. He said this move would bring better access for public.
Riggin said she didn’t disagree with Donati about moving the meeting to later in the day. She was happy with how efforts by the current commissioners to Facebook livestream meetings was going.
Only half the commissioner candidates in attendance
RIggin and Donati only make up half the candidates running for commissioner.
While not addressing it correctly, Riggin might have unintentionally brought up the elephant in the room: the fact that neither of the District 1 candidates attended the forum.
“I’m a public servant and I think when I’m invited to attend something, I should show up,” Riggin told those in attendance at the start of the forum.
The campaigns for incumbent District 1 Commissioner James King, a republican, and challenger Gary Campbell, a Democrat, did not respond when invited to take part in the forum.
Riggin and Ryan Webb are the only two Republicans confirmed to attend the series of candidate forums. Others have either declined to attend or never responded to the host organizations.
More forums to come
The remaining forums for specific races are on the following nights:
- Delaware County Council candidates: Sept. 16, 7-8:30 p.m.
- Indiana Legislative District 33, 34 and 35 combined State Representative candidates: Tuesday, Sept. 22, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
- 6th District Congressional candidates: Sept. 30, 7-8 p.m.
Corey Ohlenkamp is the city/county government reporter. Contact him via email at email@example.com or by phone at 765-213-5874. Follow him on Twitter at @Ohlenkamp