Key endorsements in this year’s crowded Hamilton County primary election might bring chronic tensions between the board of commissioners and county council to a boiling point.
Nine candidates are vying for the Hamilton County Council’s three at-large seats in this year’s June 2 primary election. The eight Republicans and one Democrat offered different guesses for why there are almost twice as many competitors this year than in the 2016 race, but nearly everyone cited a rift between those who want to spend more and those who want to save more as a contributing factor.
“Some of the other county elected officials would like to have certain projects done,” council member Brad Beaver said. “But, one of the jobs of the county council is to be a check-and-balance for the county commissioners, to keep an eye on the projects and use our discretion to determine how much to spend.”
Incumbent council members Beaver and Rick McKinney are both fiscal conservatives seeking reelection. They have spent a respective 24 and 26 years on the council. They both say the Hamilton County commissioners are backing newcomer council candidates as retribution for conservatives’ past votes against commissioner-proposed projects.
Though council members and commissioners told the IBJ they felt a majority of projects have proceeded without obstruction, members of both levels of government pointed to several split votes as examples of the divide.
Chief among those contentious projects was a 2015 proposal for a new public-safety training facility in Noblesville.
Council members McKinney, Beaver, Fred Glynn and Paul Ayers voted against spending $3 million on the estimated $42 million facility because they felt contributions from the county’s cities and towns were insufficient. The four votes represented a majority on the seven-member council.
“I have no problem cooperating or collaborating, but one thing I don’t do is capitulate under pressure,” McKinney said. “Nobody looks after the taxpayer as much as I do, in terms of trying to question spending of the commissioners, and I think that’s going to be even more necessary in the future.”
McKinney said it would be “disingenuous” to ignore the increased burden taxpayers will have to bear if a new council takes a less conservative approach to capital projects, especially since the county could be facing years of tax revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
The three-member board of commissioners is composed of Christine Altman, Steve Dillinger, Mark Heirbrandt, all Republicans. Heirbrandt and Dillinger’s seats are up for re-election, but only Dillinger is opposed. He faces Charlie McMillan Jr., a Noblesville Republican.
Even though all three commissioners have shown some form of support for council candidate Steven Nation, they rejected the idea that they were trying to build a “rubber stamp” council to push projects through without resistance.
Commissioner Steve Dillinger said he has coached football with Nation, a former Hamilton County prosecutor and Superior Court judge, for a number of years. Dillinger said his reelection committee’s $5,000 contribution to Nation’s campaign is an attempt at team-building.
Dillinger said he’s supporting a candidate who is willing to evaluate projects based on their own merits.
“I believe in a team concept,” Dillinger said. “That doesn’t mean everyone on that team agrees with everything. I’m just asking for cooperation to work together to get the things done that we need to get done.”
Altman, the commissioners’ District 1 representative and president, agreed.
She said she’s not endorsing Nation in exchange for a lenient review of future projects, but she is hoping he’ll bring a more collaborative approach so projects can be reviewed at a faster pace.
“I don’t want to waste time playing politics to get a project through,” Altman said. “We don’t concoct projects for any type of personal benefit. We believe the projects we come up with are necessary now, and more importantly, necessary for the county 10, 20, 30 years down the road.”
Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt has also endorsed Nation, but he rejects assertions by Beaver and McKinney that doing so creates an expectation of reciprocity.
“It’s disappointing to me that they want to play these games when we should all be coming together at a time like this, when the community needs us,” Heirbrandt said.
As for his own assurances, Nation said he’d already voted against commissioners’ wishes in a condemnation suit that previously crossed his docket. To further demonstrate his point, Nation compared the relationship between commissioners and council members to that between a teammate and their coach.
“When I used to play football a million years ago, the coach called the plays. It wasn’t my responsibility to call the plays, but I thought it was my responsibility to tell the quarterback and the coach what I saw on the line,” Nation said.
“I’m not criticizing the people sitting on the council, but in the past, it seems like there has been this real fight between the two. People can disagree on a lot of things, but I want to keep the dialogue going,” Nation said. “I guess I’m an old team player.”
Hamilton County residents can vote early through Friday by visiting one of eight satellite polling places . They’ll also have one more chance to vote early by visiting the judicial center in Noblesville the day before the June 2 primary election.
Here are the contested candidates in this year’s commissioners and council races:
County Commissioner District 2 (one seat up for election)
- Steve Dillinger, 73, R-Noblesville
- Charlie McMillan Jr, 57, R-Noblesville
County Council (three at-large seats up for election)
- Rick McKinney, 62, R-Westfield
- Brad Beaver, 61, R-Noblesville
- Sue Maki, 58, R-Carmel
- Jeff Hern, 50, R-Fishers
- Steven Nation, 70, R-Noblesville
- Lyneen Burrow, 62, R-Cicero
- John Ditslear, 77, R-Noblesville
- Tony Scott, 59, R-Fishers
- Gardiner Bink III, 29, D-Westfield
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Steve Dillinger was the only Hamilton County Commissioner up for reelection. We apologize for this error.