A little more than a week after a new candidate entered the fall mayoral race, a little controversy has arrived, too.
During last week's West Lafayette city council meeting, Independent candidate Zachary Baiel began to walk to the lectern during the council’s designated “Citizens Comments” period. Council President Peter Bunder took notice.
“So, Zach, you’re putting me in an awkward place,” Bunder said. “If I let you speak every time you have an issue, then it looks like I’m endorsing your candidacy for mayor. If I don’t let you speak, then it looks like I’m endorsing Mayor Dennis.
“So let me cut you a deal," Bunder said. "You can speak once on one issue you really like … and at the end, but that’s it.”
Baiel used his time to read into the record the stated policy for citizens’ comments located at the bottom of every city council agenda.
“We welcome public comment and encourage active participation in this meeting,” Baiel read aloud before addressing concerns over an earlier discussed ordinance.
Baiel said later that he took issue with Bunder’s endorsement comment, because he never spoke of his campaign during the council meeting and planned to speak only on the ordinance.
No section within the citizens' comments rules forbids a political candidate to express his or her opinion on a matter.
Public comments are broken up into two sections. The first asks that citizens keep the comments relevant to the discussed ordinances or resolutions. The second comment section held at the end of the meeting, however, allows for comment on “any issue you may have,” the section reads.
The Exponent could not reach Bunder for comment.
In the lead-up to the deadline for candidates to officially file for mayor, they must collect enough signatures to do so - in Baiel's case, 241. Baiel went door to door, from farmers market to farmers market and to just about every event in between to gather signatures.
“There’s probably people in the audience that didn’t even know I was running for office … and if people knew me but didn’t know I was running, they would see no difference,” Baiel said after the meeting.
Baiel also argues that when running for any office, although he may be considered a public figure, he is still a private citizen and exercising his rights as such.
Then on Thursday, Mayor John Dennis appeared on his regularly scheduled “Ask the Mayor” segment with radio station WBAA. Almost half of the 30-minute segment was dedicated to Baiel, the incident at city council and the lead-up to the election.
Dennis disputed Baiel’s version of the events from the city council meeting and went on to say, “Zach, as a citizen, chooses to use that forum as an ongoing public commentary and he comments on ordinances, on regulations, on conversations, he really uses that forum as an opportunity to basically express his opinions on how things are going.”
Baiel comments on not just legislative items but also operational ones, Dennis said, and was asked to hold his comments until the end. Dennis also discussed Baiel’s ideas for open government and what he sees as the problems surrounding them.
Baiel addressed the program directly via his @baielformayor Twitter account, stating that Dennis does not speak for Baiel's campaign and that there were numerous inaccuracies throughout the program, although he did not spell out those inaccuracies.
Baiel said his biggest issue with the WBAA program “was there was a lot of talking on my behalf, characterizations which I find very fascinating,” he said.
Baiel was also quick to note that while transparency is not the definitive aspect of his campaign, “it is an extreme component right up there with communications, engagement and developmental goals.”
“Zach believes we should have basically a portal where people can dial in and basically go through everything that’s within the database of anything he’s going to look for to just sorta see what things are going on,” Dennis told the radio host, describing his security concerns with that idea and the limits of city resources.
Baiel worked for the West Lafayette School Corp. for 11 years and eventually worked his way up to running the IT Department. Dennis's reference to security issues rankle him.
“And he throws out the red herring of possible security issues if the city allowed people to interface with the data," Baiel said. "And that, again, is patently false. As an IT professional, there are always risks. Anything that’s connected to a network or has the potential to be connected into some kind of network fashion, whether it’s near-field communication, you left your Bluetooth on … whatever the case may be, yes, networks bring upon security vulnerability.
“But you can minimize a tremendous amount of vulnerability by sandboxing and limiting physical access," Baiel said. "You just have a server that doesn’t have access to other information, and it just has access to publicly available information.”
Baiel said he, too, has worked for public institutions, volunteering for a variety of projects, most notably the library systems.
"I’m all too intimately familiar with being short-staffed, short-funded and any other trials and tribulations that a government entity can have,” Baiel said.
During his time working with the school system, Baiel said, he worked hard to maintain a functioning technology department flexible to budget cuts.
“When all those changes happened with property tax caps, for instance … we had five people in the IT department that went down to three and we were still able to deliver quality service and expand our technology offerings,” Baiel said. "I can say that a lot of the changes, I think, that need to be made that I would do, after evaluating my administration, would all be operational changes. So yes, the mayor’s correct in saying the way his administration is currently functioning and executing on, for instance public records issues, is probably not the most effective or resource-minded."
Baiel actively participates in city meetings. The 36-year-old is an advocate for open government and transparency and is the president for the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, an organization dedicated to creating a “society in which all citizens enjoy full unimpeded access to government information and the public decision-making process,” ICOG’s website says.