KEVIN LEININGER: Trustee’s City Council bid raises questions about his intentions and the political system’s credibility

Eric Tippmann, left, Justin Busch and Robert Armstrong are sworn in as Allen County Council members in 2016. Tippmann, now Perry Township Trustee, is running for City Council while Bush is now a state senator. But at least Bush sought the job only after David Long retired. (News-Sentinel file photo by Kevin Leininger)
Tom Hardin
Steve Shine
Kevin Leininger

Something can be legal without being right, which is why voters in the May Republican City Council primary — and maybe supporters of both parties in November — should ponder an old wisdom made relevant by current events:

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

When I last wrote about Eric Tippmann in November, he had just convinced the Allen County Election Board he was still a legitimate Republican candidate for Perry Township Trustee despite moving out of the township and into a home on Lake Avenue — a relocation he said would make it easier for one of his non-driving daughters to attend ballet class. In a party-line decision, the board by a 2-1 vote allowed Tippmann to remain on the ballot after he assured members that his previous home on Willowind Trail remained his permanent address and that he intended to move back there as early as January.

But now it’s February, and the new month brought a new intrigue when Tippmann filed as a candidate in the May Republican primary for City Council at large. If elected in November, it would be Tippmann’s third public office in a year, since he was a member of County Council before defeating incumbent Republican Trustee James McIntosh in last year’s primary and Democrat Melissa Rinehart in November.

Even during last year’s campaign it was widely rumored that Tippmann was interested in a City Council bid, so the questions must be asked: Did he mislead township voters and the Election Board about his intentions? And even if he did, what can be done about it, and by whom?

The first thing to understand is that Tippmann did not move to Lake Avenue in order to run for council because his Willow Wind home was already within the city limits. Nor would an intent to run for council this year have affected the Election Board’s decision to validate his bid for trustee because members were considering only whether his move to Lake Avenue meant Tippmann could no longer seek a township office because he was no longer a township resident. Acting after Rinehart and others had challenged Tippmann’s candidacy for trustee, the board decided his township residency remained valid because of his stated intention to return.

“Who’s going to prove (otherwise)? The process did work,” said Republican member Tom Hardin, an attorney who said it is legally irrelevant whether Tippmann was planning a council bid at the time. Hardin also noted Tippmann’s filing as a council candidate listed his Willowind address, which is consistent with his testimony to the board.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Tippmann is out of the woods, Hardin said. Although state statute does not require Tippmann to relocate back to Perry Township by any certain date, the Election Board could take another look at his residency if Tippmann’s council bid results in a new challenge. If the board determined Tippmann doesn’t plan to return, Hardin said, it could decide “he can’t continue to serve as trustee.”

Steve Shine, Hardin’s legal partner and county GOP chairman, said it’s not the party’s business when a qualified candidate leaves one office early to seek another. “(Tippmann) has certainly been energetic about seeking office,” he said. “But any misrepresentation to the Election Board (about the residency issue) would be a very grave matter and would be dealt with (by the party) accordingly, although I’m not sure how.” Shine seldom takes sides in GOP primaries, at least publicly.

Voters, however, can and must take sides on the basis of the information they are given. Perry Township residents handily elected Tippmann in November even after widespread media coverage of the residency question. In this case, Tippmann explained that “As the father of three daughters I was hoping three or four or five qualified women would jump into the primary . . . When I didn’t see that, I decided I’m going to make my campaign partly about getting new people, especially women and retired persons, more interested in holding office.

“With regard to townships, I reignited a lot of the conversation last year to save Hoosiers money by advocating the removal of the unnecessary township layer of government. The Indiana House just passed out of committee a bill to eliminate all township boards. That is a good start. The next logical step for them is to next year eliminate all trustees! So, my work (as trustee) is done, so to speak.”

As for moving back to Perry Township, Tippmann said, “We are waiting for the (people living in the house now) to finish renovations on the new house they bought. (We) will do some changes ourselves that are easier when empty, then move back in. Perhaps wait for school to end, perhaps after spring break.”

Incumbent Michael Barranda, who will also be a GOP at-large candidate in May, said he doesn’t believe Tippmann intended to mislead anyone. “Council is clearly the positions he prefers,” Barranda said. “He was just hedging his bets.”

With five Republicans seeking three at-large nominations, Tippmann will have to persuade voters his motives justify their support, and their trust.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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