SOUTH BEND – It's an icon on South Bend's west side and now it's also the center of controversy. St. Joseph County's Republican Party is asking the County Election Board to remove the Westside Democratic Club as a polling place, claiming electioneering and possible corruption is intimidating Republican voters.
Tuesday morning’s election board meeting became heated shortly after County Republican Party Chair Deb Fleming asked the board to consider not allowing voters to cast ballots at the club.
“This is not the way we want to run and [what we want] to have people expect when they walk into their polling places,” Fleming said.
“You know what I think?” countered St. Joseph County Democratic Party Vice Chair Debbie Ladyga Block. “I think you’re grand standing like you have for the last year and a half.”
“That’s your opinion,” Fleming replied, before Election Board Chair Jim Korpal told the women it was “enough” and he needed to regain control of the meeting.
County Democrats have faced big corruption allegations lately.
Earlier this year the prosecutor indicted former party chair Butch Morgan for felony petition fraud and forgery. Three other party workers were also charged in the incident. All are awaiting trial.
Then in June, former Penn Township Trustee Jeff Dean pleaded guilty to paying his secretary and girlfriend county money for cleaning work she never did.
During the May Primary, the clerk’s office investigated a complaint that election workers denied a voter a Republican ballot at the Westside Democratic Club.
“There was no evidence of that at all, especially since there was a Republican inspector,” said St. Joseph County Clerk Terri Rethlake.
“Why wait ‘til now? If there was a problem in the spring why didn’t they come out immediately and do something about it?” asked Ladyga-Block.
When asked about concrete evidence of fraud, electioneering or any type of corruption happening during elections at the club, Fleming replied, “With all the candidate support they give out at the Westside Democratic Club and the electioneering that goes on and the amount of signs and things that are still around the area and the club, that's what we really shouldn't have to tolerate as citizens of St. Joseph County in order to have a fair and balanced election.”
“The Westside Democratic Club has done nothing wrong,” fired back Ladyga-Block. “And I’m not gonna tell you that anyone else has either. No one has been proven guilty of anything at this point. I think they need to step back, stop grandstanding and get a grip on the situation.”
The election board chair called for a special hearing during the board’s next meeting, October 1. That’s also when the board is expected to make its decision, after hearing arguments from both sides and the public. However, Chairman Korpal stressed that he only wants to hear from people who have concrete evidence of corruption, electioneering or any real problems at the club.
One suggestion Fleming gave as an alternative to the Westside Democratic Club is St. Adalbert’s church, just a few blocks away. It already serves as a polling place.