South Bend city clerk candidates address disarray between clerk, common council

·6 min read
South Bend City Clerk Dawn Jones, left, speaks during a debate Tuesday night against her competitors for the Democratic bid in the May 2 primary election. Jones is challenged by Jason Banicki, center, and Bianca Tirado.
South Bend City Clerk Dawn Jones, left, speaks during a debate Tuesday night against her competitors for the Democratic bid in the May 2 primary election. Jones is challenged by Jason Banicki, center, and Bianca Tirado.

SOUTH BEND — City Clerk Dawn Jones and one of her Democratic challengers, Bianca Tirado, agreed on something crucial during a Tuesday night debate.

Rated on a scale from one to 10, the relationship between the South Bend Common Council and the clerk’s office — the council’s administrative arm — garners a one.

More:Dysfunction between city clerk and Council brings steep consulting fees, canceled meeting

Ahead of the May 2 primary election, Tirado is leaning on endorsements from South Bend Mayor James Mueller and the majority of the council to argue that disarray in the clerk’s office won’t be cleaned up until the clerk and the council can get along. While Tirado and council leadership blame Jones for a series of blunders, Jones argues she's being unfairly targeted.

The incumbent clerk faces challenges from Democrats Tirado and Jason Banicki, a former St. Joseph County community corrections officer who’s now a manager at Lowe’s. Banicki said he felt compelled to run earlier this year when a spat between Jones and the Common Council went public and culminated in a canceled council meeting.

Local Democrats appointed Jones to be city clerk over Tirado and other candidates in a 2019 special caucus, held after former clerk Kareemah Fowler ended her term early. Since then, the relationship between the council and the clerk’s office has been strained.

“When I first came into the city clerk’s office, the staff was not really happy,” Jones said. “They felt betrayed.”

A crowd gathered Tuesday night to watch a debate between South Bend City Clerk Dawn Jones and her competitors for the Democratic bid in the May 2 primary election. Jones is challenged by Jason Banicki and Bianca Tirado.
A crowd gathered Tuesday night to watch a debate between South Bend City Clerk Dawn Jones and her competitors for the Democratic bid in the May 2 primary election. Jones is challenged by Jason Banicki and Bianca Tirado.

Beyond the politics, the city clerk’s functional role is rather simple, candidates agreed during a live debate Tuesday at Indiana University South Bend's Wiekamp Hall.

The clerk does clerical work for the common council, whose nine members are part-time. The clerk attends the council’s meetings and keeps an accurate record of all proceedings.

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The clerk is also key to regular communication between the mayor's office and the common council, a channel that Tirado argues has broken down during Jones’ tenure. Jones says her professional relationships were stalled by a lack of in-person meetings during the pandemic.

Jones, a member of the South Bend school board for 19 years, said she’s committed to rebuilding trust between her office, the council and the mayor. Tirado says she has already earned that trust and is the most experienced candidate, having worked as deputy clerk and chief deputy clerk for more than four years.

Banicki, however, thinks a more drastic shift is needed to boost the clerk's office.

“A fresh start doesn’t come from somebody who was there until April and then was immediately hired as a consultant right after,” Banicki said. “A fresh start comes from a true outsider who doesn’t have any conflicts of interest or any backdoor deals with the current council.”

Jones protests council's steep consulting payments to Tirado

Jones has recently protested a consulting agreement formed in April 2022 between Common Council President Sharon McBride and Tirado. Since Tirado quit the clerk’s office last April, she’s been paid more than $60,000 to do clerical work for the council, according to a contract and payment records obtained by The Tribune.

Because of Tirado's experience in the clerk’s office, McBride also asked her to serve as a liaison between the council and the clerk. Tirado's contract said she would train Jones and clerk's office staff on how to properly conduct city business.

Jones refused the training, saying Tuesday night that “the common council does not have the authority to staff my office.” And now that Tirado’s running to oust her, Jones sees her challenger’s consulting work as unethical.

“The common council has the ability to seek additional help when their administrative needs are not being met,” Tirado said when asked about her role Tuesday. “And the common council will do that if they don’t have the relationship with the city clerk’s office. So it’s very important that the city clerk has the relationship to best serve the council to get the job done.”

Tirado criticized Jones’ handling of the dispute. Jones has given multiple media interviews saying the council is encroaching on her office.

After McBride canceled a January common council meeting and most councilors blamed Jones for an apparent violation of Indiana’s law regarding how and when to post agendas, Jones made statements pointing the finger back at them.

“It’s really important that when you’re having tough conversations with our elected officials, because you will, that you always remain professional and you have those conversations behind closed doors and not in front of the media,” Tirado said of the clerk’s role.

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Clerk hires controversial police review office director

The mayor and the council also lost confidence in Jones after she oversaw the hiring of a community police review office director who had been suspended seven times during his tenure at the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Hired in July 2021, the director quit in September after outcry from community members and local officials. Jones initially stood by the director and even floated the idea of creating a new role for him within the clerk’s office.

The council eventually amended the ordinance creating the police review office, stripping oversight from the clerk and moving it to the mayor. Local residents had hoped to avoid that outcome in order to keep the position free from overt political influence.

“You don’t want to have the mayor who appoints the police chief then appoint the oversight arm as well,” Banicki said. He believes the authority to hire should remain with the clerk’s office.

“Even the appearance of a conflict of interest in this kind of role,” he added, “is in and of itself a conflict of interest because it causes an erosion of public trust.”

Jones agreed it’s a conflict of interest. She didn’t mention any regret over the hire. She maintains that she conducted the process fairly and transparently, which community members disagreed with at the time.

The city clerk also recently drew the ire of South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruzskowski.

One of the clerk’s jobs is to send out press releases on behalf of the council. Last week, Jones reportedly shared her own statement announcing a vigil after a teenager was shot to death at Prairie Apartments.

But the statement included the teenager’s name, which had not yet been made public. Council Attorney Bob Palmer called the release “unethical” and a potential violation of city policy regarding campaigning activities.

Jones rejected that it was a political statement, but she apologized to the chief.

“As a mother of five sons, when I first heard, I was taken aback,” Jones said of the death. “We had been in communication with the family, they knew. … To call for prayer in the community for a family that had a devastating thing happen to them, I didn’t look at it as campaigning.”

2023 municipal elections:Lots of challengers shake up races for South Bend city offices

Registration for the May 2 primary election ends April 3. Early voting begins April 4. The Democratic candidate will face Republican Tina Wilson in the November general election.

Tables outside the Tuesday night city clerk's debate advertise the primary election for local municipal offices, which takes place May 2.
Tables outside the Tuesday night city clerk's debate advertise the primary election for local municipal offices, which takes place May 2.

Email South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at JTsmith@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jordantsmith09

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend clerk candidates address disarray between clerk and council