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Candidates clash over PAC contributions

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GREENFIELD — An infusion of campaign donations from companies that regularly do business with Hancock County raises red flags for Commissioner Derek Towle’s challengers in the May 6 Republican primary election.

Marc Huber says a political action committee of which Towle is a part raises several ethical concerns for the incumbent seeking a third term. But Towle stands by his record and says the PAC has nothing to do with his decisions for county government.

A political action committee is a way for a group to raise money for a certain political purpose. The Hancock County Commissioners PAC was formed in 2009: its two members are Towle and Commissioner Tom Stevens, and of the 20 companies that have contributed to the PAC since its inception, 15 have done business with Hancock County – some in the millions of dollars.

It’s a “pay to play” concept that concerns Huber. He says companies give to the PAC with an expectation that two of the three county commissioners would vote for them for professional services.

But Towle says nothing of the sort has happened, and the PAC actually removes him from the appearance of impropriety because the companies aren’t giving directly to him.

Their campaign finance reports shed light on the issue. Towle raised $23,045 since the beginning of the year, and $15,000 of that came from the PAC.  He still has roughly $13,668 on hand to use in the last week of the campaign, according to reports filed this week.

Huber, on the other hand, raised $6,604 and has $1,725 on hand. Most of his contributions came from personal finances or individuals; Ground Control Services was the only company to contribute to Huber. A third candidate in the race, Richard Walker, did not file a financial report and says he is not raising or spending money for his campaign.

Concerns about the PAC came up this week in a political flier Huber sent to local voters, accusing Towle of voting alongside his “PAC partner” on several issues.

“It sure portrays a poor use of judgment in my opinion,” Huber said this week. “Just the PAC in general — even though I know it’s legal, is it moral and is it ethical? Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right.”

At issue is the fact that county commissioners oversee some of the biggest budgets in the county. The county highway department, for example, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on engineering and construction contracts that commissioners give a stamp of approval.

Huber is a member of the Hancock County Council who is running for commissioner for the first time.

He points to a recent decision by Towle and Stevens in which both voted in favor of hiring DLZ Corp. to study maintenance problems at county buildings. DLZ was among three companies seeking the work and did not supply a price quote, even though the other two did. State law does not require professional service companies to provide quotes when seeking contracts.

Huber says regardless of the state law, the commissioners should have weighed price when making such a big decision.

“I wouldn’t do it at my house,” Huber said. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Come out and put a roof on my house,’ and then say, ‘What do I owe ya?’ I just think it shows poor judgment.”

DLZ has contributed to both the PAC over the years and to Commissioner Brad Armstrong, the only commissioner who is not part of the PAC. Huber wonders whether the company’s contributions to the PAC had anything to do with Towle’s decision to award the contract.

DLZ has contributed nearly $3,000 to the PAC since 2009, and over the pas seven years has done more than $305,000 in consulting with the county, according to the county auditor’s office.

Towle, however, says the PAC had nothing to do with his decision. He says DLZ was the best company to do the work because it has been working on county buildings for years.

“I’m looking for quality of services for this type of situation,” Towle said. “At that point, I wanted to have a good, quality study done, not just the one that has the cheapest price.”

Contributors to the PAC range from legal consultants to engineers to companies that sell salt and sand to the county highway department.

Every year, Towle and Stevens play host to a breakfast for consultants interested in chipping in to the PAC. The suggested price to donate is $500, and Towle said no promises for county contracts are made at those events.

Stevens agrees.

“In my opinion, it isolates us from the consultants,” he said. “We’re not inclined in any way to show any kind of favoritism. If you really look at it, it takes away the appearance of impropriety.”

Stevens says the only thing promised to consultants is “a level playing field.”

“A level playing field means no favoritism,” Stevens said.

The PAC was Stevens’ idea. Originally, all three commissioners were to be members, but Armstrong says he’d prefer to raise his own money independently.

Towle says he joined because the idea made ethical sense.

“I’m not a very good person to go out and ask for a lot of help,” he said. “Tom came into office, we talked to other commissioners around the state and asked them, ‘How do you guys do this?’ We came up with one of the better ways to do that, if we all gathered together and said, ‘Companies, if you want to donate, we’re going to give you fair and equal footing on all of our decisions.’”

Towle balks at the suggestion that he votes alongside Stevens because of their alliance with the PAC.

“If you go back and look at our votes over the years, probably 90 to 95 percent of the time we have 3-0 votes. Very rarely do we ever have a 2-1 vote,” Towle said. “I know over time I have been on the losing end, and I’m the losing vote. There have been times where Brad has been the single vote, or Tom has been the single vote. The majority of times, the three of us work together and see the same thing and it’s 3-0.”

But Huber points to several hot-button issues in which Towle and Stevens voted together. They agreed to support construction of the roundabout at Mt. Comfort Road and CR 300N, for example, and last year agreed to hire the son of the Greenfield police chief for the county’s dispatch center. 

Towle is also an employee of GPD, and Huber says it was a conflict of interest for him to cast a vote. But Towle says it wasn’t a conflict of interest, that he was able to remove his police hat and make the best hiring decision for the county.

Overall, Towle says he weighs each issue independently and makes up his own mind when coming to decisions for county taxpayers.

“I think over the last eight years, I’ve been doing a good job of listening to what people have said, to what their concerns are,” Towle said. “I try to be that calming voice on the commissioners.”

Walker, the third candidate in the race, says accepting money from businesses shouldn’t be done at all. Walker is not raising or spending money on his campaign, and he questions why the incumbent has put so much into a local race.

“If you’re doing a good job, people are going to know it,” Walker said. “I don’t  understand why you have to spend that kind of money.”

Huber says while he would accept political contributions from companies, he would never make any promises to them for contracts. And he would  not want to join a PAC because it appears as though the companies are giving just so they can secure county business.

“I know it’s part of the political game, I know it’s legal, but I just don’t approve of it,” he said. “I don’t approve of the PAC in any way, shape or form with them being sitting officeholders, elected officials.”

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