The East Chicago City Council began its Monday night meeting this week in usual fashion. With roll call. Eight council members were called. All answered present but a ninth did not. That’s because Councilman Robert Battle did not attend the meeting.
In fact, Battle hasn’t been present for any meetings since October when he was charged with drug possession and murder. Despite the murder charges Battle won re-election to a second four-year term in November. He was sworn into office in January in the jail and according to the city attorney for East Chicago, the 42-year-old Battle, whose nickname is “Coop,” is currently collecting his $41,000 a year salary via direct deposit.
Father seeks to oust councilman accused of murdering his son
“What is he doing? Where is he at? Where can we get ahold of him,” asks Reimundo Camarillo Sr. of East Chicago. Camarillo wonders how Battle can still be on the City Council while sitting in a jail an hour away.
For Camarillo, this issue is personal. It was his son Reimundo Camarillo Jr., 31, who was allegedly shot in the back by Battle back in October.
Camarillo showed up to a city council meeting this week to demand that Battle be thrown off the council.
“He’s using our taxpayer’s money for his lawyer,” Camarillo said. “I figured they could vote him out.”
But the East Chicago City Council hasn’t voted him out and isn’t likely to do so for a while. Council attorney Stephen Bower said Indiana state law is vague when it comes to the removal of an elected official. If the council makes the wrong move, it could be sued by Battle.
“The dilemma is the state statute only calls for automatic removal when convicted of a felony, not just charged,” Bower said.
Innocent till proven guilty
That’s true in many places, including Chicago. A number of public officials have faced indictment but didn’t step down until conviction. But often those indicted officials have been released on bond and are free to move around. Battle is not. He’s being held at the Porter County Jail in Valparaiso where he will remain, since Indiana does not allow those charged with murder to bail out.
Battle cannot accept phone calls and you have to be on a list to see him, according to Porter County Sheriff spokeswoman Sgt. Jamie Erow. All this adds up to Battle being unable to perform his duties as a councilman. But that may still not be enough, according to Bower, to remove him from office.
“You tell me where it is in the law that amount to unable to perform his duties. You see it’s not defined,” Bower said.
But the chairman of the Democratic Party of Lake County, Indiana isn’t buying it.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” chairman John Buncich said. “They are worried about being sued by him.”
Buncich, who also serves as the elected sheriff of Lake County, which includes East Chicago, said there is a state law that would allow Battle to be removed from office. He said he’s tried to tell that to East Chicago officials but they have essentially ignored him.
Buncich says the entire situation is making the Democratic party in Northwest Indiana look bad and he wants it to end.
“They should look out for the citizens of East Chicago and that’s just not happening,” Buncich said. “Take the action that you have to take so that you can provide the service to the city of East Chicago and quit playing with this.”
Buncich says he has reached out Northwest Indiana’s delegation at the Indiana Statehouse to pass a law in the coming weeks that would clearly define when an elected official can be removed from office.
Meanwhile, in a letter to constituents, Battle says he won't be “shamed” into inaction and will continue to work on issues that need to be addressed. He also writes in a second letter to his colleagues on the East Chicago City Council that he wants to continue to serve, maybe via video phone.
Battle tells residents to email him or call him on a number provided in the letter. He did not return several voice mail messages and emails from WBEZ requesting comment. His attorney, Jack Friedlander of Chicago, says he has instructed his client not to talk to anybody. Friedlander also offered no comment.