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A central issue for Elkhart

Commissioners dispute claim that Elkhart will follow St. Joseph's lead to Central time.

by James Wensits
Publication: South Bend Tribune

November 28, 2005

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SOUTH BEND -- Would Elkhart County crumble and shift to Central time if St. Joseph County does?

"Yes," says University of Notre Dame professor John Gaski.

"No," says Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder.

"It's in the Department of Transportation's hands now," says Elkhart Commissioner Terry Rodino, who also suggested that Gaski should worry about what bowl Notre Dame's football team will play in and "go back to education."

Rodino also said Gaski should "sit tight" and wait for the DOT decision.

Gaski, an associate professor of marketing and frequent commentator on the time issue, said in an e-mail to The Tribune that he believes that if "St. Joe County gets Central time while Elkhart stays on Eastern, the latter county will petition for Central time, probably within a year -- because its populace will demand it. Even now, Elkhart public sentiment is roughly evenly split."

Following the decision earlier this year by the Indiana General Assembly to move the state to daylight-saving time beginning in April 2006, officials in St. Joseph and several other counties petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation to move from the Eastern to the Central time zone.

Such a move would add St. Joseph to northwestern Indiana counties such as LaPorte, Porter and Lake that follow Central time so as to stay in tune with Chicago.

The DOT has preliminarily recommended that both St. Joseph and Starke counties be moved to Central time, and that Marshall County, which sought a shift to Central time to keep in step with St. Joseph County, stay on Eastern time.

Elkhart County officials opted to stay on Eastern time and did not file a petition.

DOT officials have said they will make a final decision in January on which time zones St. Joseph and Starke counties will be in and indicated that the door has also been left open for Marshall County.

DOT officials have said, however, that they will not initiate a time zone change for nonpetitioning counties.

At the DOT public hearing last week at Indiana University South Bend, Elkhart commissioners asked federal officials to deny St. Joseph County's petition in the interest of keeping the two counties on the same time.

That left some bruised feelings on the part of St. Joseph County commissioners, although Yoder said Friday that he is "surprised we came across as harsh and personal. That was not our intent."

Gaski maintained that "the moment St. Joseph County would be granted Central time, the Elkhart County case for Central time would immediately be overwhelming."

"Based on their vaunted cross-county commuting patterns and trade relations, an Elkhart move to the Central time zone would instantly be justified," Gaski said.

The professor speculated that the DOT could grant Central time status to St. Joseph County, then give notice to Elkhart County that a petition for Central time would get favorable attention because of the compelling evidence in favor of such a move, "with a decision likely by the spring time change."

Yoder conceded that a St. Joseph County move to Central time would provide a stronger case for Elkhart County to do the same.

" If St. Joseph County is granted Central," Yoder said, "then things do change."

Because St. Joseph County's transportation and media outlets would suddenly be in the Central time zone, several area counties in Michigan and northern Indiana could more easily make a case for Central time, Yoder said. "It would almost be a slam dunk for any county to petition for Central time," the commissioner added.

However, Yoder believes the situation for Elkhart County would be different because it has a slight majority of workers who would be commuting from Eastern time zone areas in Michigan and northern Indiana.

There would also be a "convenience factor" to weigh in terms of the value of convenience to a commuting work force, Yoder said. "We'd be in a real dilemma."

But Yoder said he believes it would be "highly unlikely" that Elkhart County would ultimately decide to follow St. Joseph County into Central time.

Despite months of discussion, Yoder said he has not sensed any change in personal opinion by those who favor one time zone over another.

Calling it "very bad public policy" to allow time zone changes one county at a time, Yoder said he would favor a statewide referendum on the issue if it would mean the whole state was on the same time.

"I'd support that in a heartbeat," Yoder said. "That's the best way out of this mess."

Referendum legislation, which would put the time zone issue on next fall's election ballot, has been introduced in the Indiana General Assembly.

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