Perception Concerns Prompt Staffing Adjustments during Starke County’s Early Voting Hours

The Starke County Clerk’s Office is working to address some perception issues, stemming from the fact that the county’s election clerk is also on next month’s ballot. Colleen Hodge is one of two Democrats running for Knox clerk-treasurer.

County Clerk Bernadette Welter-Manuel says she’s reduced the amount of time Hodge spends near the early voting site, after concerns were raised by Starke County Democratic Party chair and outgoing clerk-treasurer Jeff Houston. “Mr. Houston came and spoke with me, and he was worried about perception,” Welter-Manuel told the election board last week. “He read what we’ve received from the state, and he understands that it’s completely legal, and that we went above and beyond . . . so the perception couldn’t arise that Colleen knows who – well, that they can see her because she is behind the partitions.”

Welter-Manuel said she and her first deputy are now splitting those duties with Hodge, and that she and Houston were both happy with that arrangement.

But the other two election board members were less thrilled. Harrison Fields questioned whether the new staffing actually solves the perception issues. “Colleen’s still able to go down there, so what’s the difference if she worked 2:30 to 4:00, what’s the difference if she worked an hour-and-a-half or three hours?” Fields asked. “What’s the difference now? She’s still down there.”

But beyond that, Fields and Peg Brettin felt that they should have been included in the decision-making process. Welter-Manuel stressed that Houston never wanted to file a formal complaint but simply wanted to voice his concerns. “Jeff came into the office unannounced,” she explained. “He didn’t call me. He came here, said, ‘Bernadette, I want to talk.’ We went in my office and we talked. So there was nothing planned. There wasn’t a meeting scheduled, nothing like that. He came to me, professional-to-professional, to talk, so we did.”

“But you didn’t solve anything,” Fields replied. “Either she’s going to be down there, or she’s not going to be down there.” Fields felt that Welter-Manuel should either have asked Houston to attend the next election board meeting or write a formal complaint to the board.

Brettin added that at the very least, the clerk should have checked with the other members before coming to a final agreement with Houston. “That is how the board is going to have to work during election times,” Brettin said, “and this is one of the things that both Harrison and I are concerned about, are the transparencies of what’s happening.” Brettin stressed that the board has to work together.