Fairfield Twp. board: Worth it to oust Trustee Taletha Coles before end of her term?
Plus, River Road about to be closed in West Lafayette. A $1 million NSF bump for a West Lafayette education startup. American Suburban dinged along the way to 69% rate hike plan
Today’s edition is sponsored by The Long Center for the Performing Arts, which is bringing America to Lafayette for the first concert in the new Loeb Stadium. For tickets and more details, scroll through today’s issue of the Based in Lafayette reporting project.
Earlier this year, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law that was written, in part, with Fairfield Township Trustee Taletha Coles in mind.
The upshot: If a township trustee is derelict of their duties, a township board could start a process to remove the elected official from office.
Tuesday night, Fairfield Township Board President Perry Schnarr said that when July 1 rolled around – the date the law goes into effect – he was ready to test the procedure “and start pushing Ms. Coles out of office.”
The two other members of the board – Monica Casanova and Rocky Hession – said they were willing to look into it. But they wondered aloud whether the process would make sense, now that Coles was on her way out, anyway.
Coles finished a distant third in the May 3 Democratic primary, with 11% of the vote in her first run for re-election. Casanova finished first, and Hession finished second. Casanova will face Republican April O’Brien in the November general election for Fairfield Township trustee.
“Sounds like we need to do our homework,” Casanova said. A week earlier, after her primary victory, Casanova said she was prepared to at least look at the option.
Hession said there were plenty of reasons to not let Coles remain during the final seven months of a lame duck administration, given persistent questions about the trustee’s spending habits, inability to account for township assistance and assorted friction with the board and the public. The State Board of Accounts has been working on an ongoing audit of the township’s books since August 2021.
But Hession said he wanted to know how long it would take to get through the various steps laid out in the new state law. If it promised to drag deep into 2022, Hession said he wasn’t sure he was ready to go through it. He said he was most concerned about making sure there was a workable budget in 2023 for the new trustee and board, whoever is elected.
“We may be better off just living with it at this point,” Hession said.
Coles did not attend Tuesday evening’s township board meeting. And she did not immediately respond to messages for comment.
State Sen. Ron Alting, a Lafayette Republican, instigated the new law, after helping sort through issues with Coles and then-Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising. Teising lost her position after she was convicted on 21 counts of theft tied to accepting her trustee salary while she didn’t maintain a residence in the township. Teising is appealing that conviction and the three-year sentence that went with it.
The bill was based on one signed into law in April 2021. That one targeted a handful of county elected officials – limited to auditors, treasurers, recorders, surveyors and assessors – who were no-shows on their jobs. The law laid out a civil, rather than a criminal, process for county commissioners to call for the elected official’s ouster. The county council also would need to agree. Then a judge would get final say whether the elected official was doing a poor enough job to lose their position. At each stage, the elected official accused has ways to defend themselves in public hearings or in court, according to the law.
Senate Bill 304 added another step, aiming the law at township trustees and initiating the process with a majority vote of a township board.
“I’m not willing to wait,” Schnarr said about the prospects of letting Coles finish her term. “What all has happened this year shouldn’t have happened. What happened the past two years shouldn’t have happened.”
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READY FOR THIS? RIVER ROAD CLOSURE STARTS MONDAY
“This is going to be a changing dynamic for the entire community.” So says West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis, who joined the collective heads-up Tuesday from city officials about a project that will close River Road, from Dehart Street to Happy Hollow Road for months.
The project will include extensive detours to get around one of West Lafayette’s busiest stretches of road. The city is prepping for its $13.9 million Dehart Combined Sewer Overflow Project, which includes a 15-by-15-foot tunnel under River Road that is designed to collect and store 1.7 million gallons of stormwater during heavy rains to give the city’s wastewater treatment plant time to process sewage instead of having it overflow directly into the Wabash River. This first road closure will run from Monday, May 16, to Oct. 28.
Dave Henderson, the city’s utility director, said the hole being dug for the project will be so deep and wide that even bikes and pedestrians will not have a way around. (Dennis joked Tuesday that if anyone tried to go four-wheeling and gets stuck, “we’re just going to bury it there.”)
For detour maps and updates on the project, check: www.riverroadcso.com
A $1 MILLION TASK FOR WEST LAFAYETTE’S EXPLORE INTERACTIVE
Big day last week for West Lafayette startup Explore Interactive, which announced more than $1 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and the state, as well as a new partnership with the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting to create augmented reality products aimed at STEM learning.
The company, started in 2017 and based at the Purdue Research Park’s Railyard, received $1 million in Small Business Innovation Research funding from the National Science Foundation and another $75,000 through state sources.
Amanda Thompson, Explore Interactive CEO, said the funding will help develop content under the MindLabs name, particularly designed to allow students to work together on engineering and circuit design challenges. The partnership with the Mascot Hall of Fame – here, see for yourself – will spur STEM-based content built around the museum’s own mascot, Reggy, with the idea of expanding to other mascots across the country.
Question: Congratulations on the National Science Foundation funding. How did you find out that had come through? Tell me the scene.
Amanda Thompson: The grant award process can be painfully slow. Back in May of 2021 we submitted the grant and were under the impression that word would come relatively quickly. An agonizing seven months later we finally got some firm positive news and we knew by just before Christmas. We rallied the troops to aim for this May 4 date, so we have already gotten things off the ground with our many collaborators.
Question: How did this venture get started? What did you see in the market? And how long did it take to get a foothold?
Amanda Thompson: The company started as a student-led company out of the Purdue Foundry. As these resources are open to the community at large, the student, Wesley Virt, was an undergraduate at Wabash College. I was his advisor at the Foundry. I am a firm believer that AR is going to take our lives by storm – though everyone is a bit surprised in the hardware lag that has kept the wave slow moving for now. AR provides the opportunity for extremely rich visual and interactive materials that really help students of all ages grasp difficult topics, such as STEM. I'd say we are still working on getting a firm foothold, as the aforementioned hardware issue is difficult. The pandemic led many schools to move toward the cheaper Chromebook option, whereas rich educational resources in AR require a bit different tech – handheld, touchscreen devices with forward facing cameras. We are working on that challenge now, but still have many elementary classrooms that use iPads.
Question: Tell me a bit about what grades you’re aiming for? And how does it work, in layman’s – or better yet – a parent’s terms?
Amanda Thompson: We target third through fifth grades, as research is showing that is a critical starting point, though many barriers prevent widespread incorporation of science and engineering in these classrooms. The tech is easier than you'd think, but you do need a set of our cards for the best experience. However you can try it using this how to guide. Download the app “MindLabs Energy and Circuits,” navigate the menu and, boom, you have a live camera. Point the device camera at the cards and you can learn through interactive challenges or create a new design yourself. The images on the cards – i.e. targets – are what trigger a 3D version to appear right before your eyes
Question: What was your entré into the mascot world with this?
Amanda Thompson: We have a press release to thank for that. A contact from the Mascot Hall of Fame reached out to use to follow up and find out if there were collaboration opportunities given their STEM education mission. It was a natural fit.
Question: OK, so, for you, what’s the best mascot?
Amanda Thompson: Well my loyalties are divided. Growing up in Wyoming, it's pretty hard to beat Pistol Pete. Purdue Pete is iconic but terrifies my children. I also teach some at the University of North Carolina, and Ramsey is pretty cool. I do wish I had some female mascots to choose, though. (Soapbox!)
Question: What do you see for the future for the product and the concepts it offers?
Amanda Thompson: I hope our product will grow with content partnerships. There are fantastic curricular offerings from places like the Boston Museum of Science and their Engineering is Elementary that could integrate with our technology. We also are looking for corporate development partners who are interested in creating learning modules around STEM content featured in their businesses – think Cat and engine design. I believe that the direction of educational media and curricular products will move with enthusiasm towards these highly engaging materials in the future.
Question: What else should everyone know about your news?
Amanda Thompson: Purdue, Indiana and our United States are incredible places to start new technology businesses. The support we have received from the Foundry, Elevate Ventures and the (Small Business Innovation Research) program at a federal level is incredible. All of these are so committed to our students and educating these young minds to be a driving force in the economy of the future. This community as well, including MatchBox and many, many parents and students who have supported us through our journey.
This and that …
AMERICAN SUBURBAN UTILITIES RATE HIKE DINGED: American Suburban’s proposed 69% rate increase for water service just outside West Lafayette was raked over the coals when customers had a chance to critique the plan in March. The proposal to take bills from $59.08 a month to $99.66 a month earned words like “ludicrous” and worse. As American Suburban and customers wait on a decision from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission – the agency is scheduled to hold a hearing on American Suburban’s request June 2, with an order expected in the summer, according to a timeline shared in March – WLFI reporter Joe Paul reported this week that the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor wasn’t impressed by the company’s proposal, either. The OUCC recommendation: Lower bills, instead. Paul has more details about the latest report here.
AFTER THE BMV DIRECTOR STEPPED DOWN: Indianapolis Star reporters Kaitlin Lange and Tony Cook delivered quite a look into the tenure of Peter Lacy, former Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles director who resigned suddenly in April. The headline gives a pretty good hint about what’s in the account from BMV staffers and more: “Drinking, crass sexual comments, fits of rage: Why didn't governor rein in BMV chief?” From Cook and Lange’s report: “Despite the well-documented history, Lacy was never suspended or terminated. Rather, Gov. Eric Holcomb allowed him to resign after the latest indiscretion, ensuring any disciplinary issues or complaints in Lacy's personnel file remain sealed from the public.” It’s a subscriber-only story. But it’s worth the price of one of those introductory deals the IndyStar is constantly running. (Local reporting, man … it pays off.) And from Tuesday’s follow-up, Cook and Lange reported that Lacy was out of the running for a similar job in Virginia after the initial report. Here’s a link to that development.
Thanks to The Long Center for the Performing Arts for its support and sponsorship of today’s edition of Based in Lafayette. For details about upcoming shows, including America at Loeb Stadium on June 30, click the link below.
THANKS FOR MAKING THE FIRST YEAR OF THE BASED IN LAFAYETTE REPORTING PROJECT WORK.