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Huntertown lobbyist hired before official OK

Even though some Huntertown officials denied any knowledge of hiring an Indianapolis lobbyist, records show he was hired in March to represent the town in January and received a payment from the town in February.

The town approved retroactively hiring Joe Sutherland of Utilitus LLC, an affiliate of the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, in Indianapolis in March, months after he was hired and a few weeks after he represented them at a state Senate hearing.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environmental Affairs on Feb. 24, Sutherland clearly stated he was representing the town of Huntertown. David Pippen of Bose McKinney & Evans, also in Indianapolis, testified on behalf of City Utilities.

Members of the Huntertown Utilities Service Board – who are appointed by the Town Council – signed a retroactive resolution to hire Sutherland on March 17. The resolution had a Jan. 30 effective date and included a service contract signed by Sutherland and the town’s attorney, Dave Hawk.

After two public records requests from The Journal Gazette seeking information regarding Sutherland, Huntertown Council President Pat Freck replied in a March 10 email, “The Town of Huntertown has not approved the hiring of Joe Sutherland of Utilitus LLC.”

Freck’s response in a March 19 email confirmed that the utilities board had approved hiring and paying Sutherland, but the town had no knowledge of the agreement, she said.

“The Town Council did not discuss or approve this,” Freck said. “I was at the USB meeting and the cost was $10K for him to represent them during the legislative session regarding the bill on service areas.”

Officials were asked about Sutherland at public utility and council meetings in February and March, and no answers were offered, although town records show a payment of almost $5,300 to Utilitus on Feb. 24.

Andrew Conner, president of the utilities board, said the council knew Hawk would be hiring a consultant from Utilitus on behalf of the utilities board.

Conner said Hawk is under contract by the town of Huntertown to provide a multitude of legal services, including hiring a lobbyist.

“Mr. Hawk sought the assistance of (Sutherland) as a consultant to assist in the legislative process to protect the interests of Huntertown utility ratepayers from this proposed legislation.” Conner said. “The USB decided unanimously to pay from utility funds the expenses incurred in hiring this consultant.”

Sutherland and Pippen both testified regarding House Bill 1187, which defined overlapping areas when municipalities supply utility services.

The bill was designed to settle an ongoing sewer dispute between Chandler and Newburgh, two small communities in southern Indiana, but Huntertown and Fort Wayne were drawn into the fray because of similar territorial issues.

The Indiana Court of Appeals had ruled that because Chandler passed an ordinance establishing an exclusive 4-mile service area around the town, and Newburgh had not, Chandler had exclusive rights to new customers in the areas in dispute.

Last fall, Huntertown established a 4-mile area encircling its corporate limits for providing water and sewage utilities. The difference is that Huntertown does not have a sewage plant – City Utilities processes the town’s wastewater.

The area is ripe for development and, thus, for utility disputes.

The bill, which was signed into law last week, is open to interpretation, with Chandler and Newburgh each already claiming the law favors its interests, according to WFIE-TV in Evansville.

The ruling gives Huntertown and Fort Wayne until Oct. 1 to settle their differences and come to an agreement, or the matter will go before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission for a ruling.

In 2012, Huntertown’s proposal to build its own $11.1 million plant was rejected by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The appeal is now before the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication, awaiting a decision.

The law was authored by Chandler’s state representative, Ron Bacon, and co-authored by Rep. Kathy Heuer, R-Columbia City.

vsade@jg.net

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