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Wabash Township saga comes to a head Tuesday
Legal challenges flew Monday in Wabash Township as firefighters looked to save their jobs before layoffs Tuesday and Trustee Jennifer Teising looked to have criminal charges heard somewhere else
Looks as if things will come down to the wire Tuesday in Wabash Township, where a trustee’s brinksmanship and legal battles continue ahead of the scheduled layoffs of the township’s three full-time firefighters.
Monday brought a full day of court action and even more threatened court action – both civil and criminal – aimed at Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising over what one township board member called “a contrived crisis” putting fire protection in the unincorporated areas near West Lafayette in danger.
Tippecanoe Circuit Judge Sean Persin said Monday that he planned to rule by the end of the day Tuesday on a request for a temporary injunction to stop the layoffs of Joe Wade, Travis Merkel and Drew Hampton.
The Wabash Township Fire Department Association, a nonprofit organization that includes the paid firefighters and a crew of 15 to 20 volunteers, filed the lawsuit late Friday afternoon. The association’s claim: Teising “abdicated her office of trustee” by moving out of the township – an accusation at the heart of a criminal case lodged against Teising in May (see below for more developments Monday in that case).
Persin, who agreed to hear arguments in the case Monday afternoon, wondered aloud in court why firefighters had waited until Friday to file, when the situation has been brewing for weeks, if not months. He noted that he was getting involved with two business days to decide a question – Did Teising really give up residency and abandon her post? – that is going to take months to sort out in criminal court.
Mario Massillamany, an attorney for the firefighters association, argued that time was tight, that money was in the township budget to keep the firefighters and that once the firefighters were let go, it would be difficult to bring them back. The suit argued that Teising “intends to terminate their employment, for no good reason,” in retaliation after firefighters issued a vote of no confidence in late 2020.
Teising, firefighters and the township board have been feuding since then. The upshot: The trustee insists that without permanent, long-term funding set aside to pay full-time firefighters beyond 2021 – the board hasn’t bought into her idea of a fire district that eventually would be turned over to Tippecanoe County commissioners – she was set to go with part-timers to augment a volunteer crew.
Firefighters contend that could add as much as five minutes to fire and medical runs – about the amount of time it would take for a volunteer to get to the station and get the trucks headed to a scene.
Teising wasn’t in court Monday. But Friday, after another in a series of emergency township board meetings, Teising said she hadn’t changed her mind. The layoffs? Those were still happening, she said. (Including to the face of the wives of two firefighters after the meeting.)
Ray Biederman, a township attorney representing Teising in her role as trustee, argued that the firefighters didn’t have standing to say the trustee should forfeit the position. Biederman also argued that Indiana law gives township trustees latitude to decide how to staff fire departments. That, he said, wasn’t subject to an injunction. And in this case, Biederman said, Teising gave firefighters indications in the early spring that layoffs were coming, with a final notice in early June. (He spent time asking one of the firefighters whether he’d taken the time to start looking for another job.)
Persin said he was willing to give both sides 60 to 90 days to make their cases. But he said he understood the urgency and would decide about the preliminary injunction Tuesday.
Township board members were not happy that the township attorney was called to represent Teising, when the board is crusading to get her to resign. Board member Brendan Betz, when he first spotted Biederman, in the courtroom: “Fancy seeing you here ...”
Late Monday night, the Wabash Township Advisory Board called what members called an emergency meeting. There, they agreed to join the Wabash Township Fire Department Association’s lawsuit. They also prepped to take legal action against Teising if she went through with the layoffs, against their protests.
The township board is scheduled to meet again Tuesday evening, to deal with any fallout if the judge doesn’t rule for the firefighters or Teising doesn’t back down.
On Friday, the township advisory board went with what they called a “nuclear option,” which they expect will spur another legal challenge.
The township board agreed to create its own emergency response department that would bypass the trustee. In essence, the firefighting operation, staff and equipment would transfer wholesale to the township board, funded by existing firefighting funds. It also would maintain fire department staffing as it is now, meaning no layoffs Tuesday.
The resolution is built on the premise that there is enough money in the budget to cover the township’s three paid firefighters through 2021, plus a maneuver the board made a week ago that cleared the way to move $500,000 from a firefighting fund designed for large equipment needs to one that could be used for operations, including firefighter salaries, through 2023. That, board members contend, would give the township two years to figure out a long-term solution to fund and even expand the paid firefighter ranks. (Teising has rejected that idea several times since it was presented.)
Whether it’s legal under Indiana law, that’s still a question, township board members admitted. (A 2009 Indiana attorney general opinion, saying control of emergency services belongs to the trustee, casts doubt on on that.)
“We’ll see how things play out (Tuesday), then we’ll know what we need to do,” Betz said Monday afternoon.
Outside the courthouse, firefighters on the chopping block gathered after watching the arguments in the courtroom.
“About as good as can be expected,” Hampton said, after being asked how he and his family were holding up.
If the court challenges fail, what’s the plan?
“Hopefully,” Merkel said, “there doesn’t need to be another plan.”
Meanwhile, in criminal court: Change of venue request
In a separate court filing Monday morning, Teising asked for a change of venue and a special prosecutor in a case in which she faces 20 counts of theft, based on the Tippecanoe County prosecutor’s claim that she continued to collect township payroll checks between June 2020 and March 2021, despite residing outside the township.
In Monday’s filing in Tippecanoe Superior Court 5 , Teising’s Indianapolis-based attorney, Karen Celestino-Horseman, argued that Teising has faced enough local media coverage and public derision from residents and Greater Lafayette public officials that she wouldn’t get a fair trial in Tippecanoe County.
Celestino-Horseman also claims that public opinion about Teising is so wrapped up with the fate of the Wabash Township Fire Department that a local jury would be hard pressed to consider the criminal charge: Did the trustee reside in Wabash Township or didn’t she?
“Questions of competence or performance are not involved in this,” Celestino-Horseman said. “This comes down to one question: Legally, did she reside in Wabash Township? I don’t believe the law supports these indictments.”
Celestino-Horseman hinted that the change of venue request was coming when Teising appeared in court in May for an initial hearing.
The motion filed Monday asks the court to move Teising's case outside Tippecanoe County and any of its seven contiguous counties, given media coverage "of approximately 80 items" in recent months.
Tippecanoe County Prosecutor Pat Harrington declined to comment Monday, saying his office would respond to the change of venue request in court. The court filing claims that deputy prosecutor Natasha Corbett “has indicated that she does not support” the change of venue.
Court records, as of Monday, did not indicate a hearing date on the change of venue motion.
Teising was scheduled for a trial on the counts July 29.
Last week, Teising said: “The only statement that I will make is that I have maintained my residence as is required by Indiana state law the entire time of my tenure as trustee."
In Monday’s court filing, Teising acknowledges that she sold her West Lafayette home on Princess Drive in June 2020 and moved to the home “she now shares with a friend” on Knox Drive, also in West Lafayette and in Wabash Township. The court filing contends she “moved furniture, clothing and other personal property” to Knox Drive and changed her voter registration and driver’s license “to reflect the address of her new residence.”
The filing also acknowledges that “in anticipation of selling her home,” Teising bought a travel trailer “and, while continuing to work remotely, traveled to Florida and other locations, intermittently returning to (the Knox Drive residence) and all the while intending to return permanently to her residence in Wabash Township.”
The travel trailer is the same one she was using when a photographer affiliated with the Lafayette Journal & Courier found her in a Florida RV camp in December.
The motion attempts to draw a distinction between “living” in place 365 days out of the year and legally “residing” in one, which is the standard township trustees must meet.
“Look at snowbirds who go to Florida for five, six months in the winter,” Celestino-Horseman said Monday. “They keep their residency. They kept their driver’s license, they kept their registrations for their cars, their voter registrations, they paid their Indiana taxes. Indiana is still their home.”
The motion claims “the community’s bias and prejudice” against Teising, saying that mounting calls for her to resign – whether from the Democratic Party chair, residents, various public officials – will influence a local jury pool. It specifically talks about township board "rooting" for theft convictions to run her off.
“The fact that elected leaders are comfortable enough to encourage Ms. Teising's conviction without hearing all the evidence or an explanation of the law, demonstrates the depth of the strong emotions running in the community" against her, according to the court documents. “To many in the community the clearest path to removing Ms. Teising from office is to convict her of the 20 counts that claim she did not reside in the township."
IF YOU GO: The Wabash Township Advisory Board will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Wabash Township Fire Station, 2899 Klondike Road. Board members are scheduled to finalize a resolution they say could allow them to take over the fire department, if Trustee Jennifer Teising fails to reach a contract with firefighters or follows through on plans to lay of the township’s three, full-time firefighters.
This and that …
IU president lived, leaves in Daniels’ shadow: As Indiana University President Michael McRobbie prepares to retire from the Bloomington campus, here comes Hayleigh Colombo, a former J&C reporter now based in Columbus, Ohio, with a new Indianapolis Monthly profile about how he fared in the high-profile shadow of Purdue President Mitch Daniels. (Colombo covered Daniels in some of his early days at Purdue while at the J&C.) While Daniels, Indiana’s former governor and once a potential candidate for the White House, picked up national coverage of Purdue’s tuition freeze and a host other topics in West Lafayette, McRobbie worked “largely under the radar. As Colombo writes: “It has been inconvenient trying to build a legacy as Indiana University president with the headline-making former governor nearby leading Purdue University.” Good read, right here.
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