City Clerk candidates address controversies at debate

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The race for the City Clerk's seat intensified as Democratic challengers debated hot topics at their first debate.

Incumbent candidate Dawn Jones faced off against challengers Bianca Tirado and Jason Banicki.

The candidates spoke on a wide range of topics-- but many of them focused on recent controversies that have involved the city clerk's office over the past few years-- including the hiring and resignation of the director of the Community Police Review Board.

Jones, who was appointed City Clerk in August 2019, hired Joshua Reynolds to be the review board's director.

Soon after the announcement was made, though, there were calls for Reynolds's resignation from Mayor James Mueller, The South Bend Common Council and the F.O.P. after it was found out that Reynolds had been suspended multiple times when was a police officer in Indianapolis.

Reynolds later resigned in August of 2021.

Now, the mayor is set to choose the new director.

The candidates were asked if the clerk's office should still be in charge of hiring that position.

"We can discuss whether it was the right hire or the wrong hire, if all the steps were followed or not, in the process to hire the first one," said Jason Banicki. "But it does not mean the minute you make one error; you throw out the whole process."

Bianca Tirado believed that it should not be handled by the City Clerk: "There was no option but to put it in the Mayor's office, because the common council is part time, and they could not physically hire an employee. They can hire contractors, but in this instance, given the director's job description, because it was a full-time employee, they could not hire that."

But Jones argued against the mayor being the one to hire the director, and said "No, he shouldn't hire and no, he shouldn't control who has the ability to hire. They gave me the ability in an ordinance that said the city clerk should appoint the director, and when I did that, they were like 'no, that's not what we want. We want to appoint the director.' And that's what happened, and no, he shouldn't. He shouldn't. It's a conflict of interest."

Jones also denied claims that she was not communicating with the rest of the South Bend Common Council about the hiring process.

This was just one of the controversies around the clerk's office that the candidates addressed.

Recently, the Common Council hired Bianca Tirado to be a consultant to assist Jones and the clerk's office in their duties, giving her a $50,000 salary.

Now, Tirado is running as a candidate.

The City Clerk also drew controversy after a Common Council meeting was cancelled earlier this year, and the cancellation notice was alleged to not have been posted in time.

Just last week, Jones was criticized after she sent out a press release for a prayer vigil for Donnie Gray Jr-- a teenager shot and killed in South Bend-- that had been organized by LaQuita Hughes, who is running for the Common Council's At-Large position.

Jones's initial release had Gray's name-- which had not been released by investigators at the time-- and City Attorney Bob Palmer argued that sending out the release was unethical-- and possibly even illegal, as a violation of city policy on campaign activities.

Each candidate addressed this particular incident directly.

"I do want to take the opportunity to offer my apologies to the chief. But I can say this: the name wasn’t just released when I released it," said Jones. “I didn’t look at it as campaign, and I’m sorry everybody else looked at it that way.”

"Particularly when it comes to an event like that, you have to wait for the police to make that public announcement," said Banicki. "You’re talking about somebody’s life, somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter. They should not find out through an accidental release through a public official.”

Tirado said, "In this instance, the name had not been publicly released, so it was not appropriate for that to have been released through the clerk’s office.”

Neighbors who came out to the debate told ABC57 that they were glad to hear these issues brought to the forefront-- as they believed local elections like these are still incredibly important.

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