Two candidates are on the ballot vying to be trustee for White River Township.
Incumbent Mark Messick, a Republican who has held the office since 2010, will face Democrat Suzanne Fortenberry in November’s general election.
The trustee serves as the executive of township government, managing day-to-day operations, administering poor relief, maintaining cemeteries, controlling weeds, among other responsibilities.
The Daily Journal met with both Messick and Fortenberry to discuss the issues facing White River Township, how the trustee can better serve the community, and their priorities if elected. Here is what they said, edited for length and grammar:
Why did you want to run for this office?
Fortenberry: This office in particular is exactly what my passion is — helping the poor. Google “what is a trustee,” which is the No. 2 question I get when I go door-to-door, it’s to help the poor. It’s poor assistance. And after doing the research of what our trustee’s office has been doing, that’s the last thing they’re doing with a $35,000 budget and their $17,000 is all they spend, it’s like, why set a budget if you’re not going to spend it? I’ve wanted to
get in public service since I was a teenager. I always thought, when I know enough, I’ll get into it and then as I get older and older at 48 I figured that you’re never gonna feel like you know enough, and you just need to jump in and try to make the difference you want to make in the world.
Messick: I love White River Township. I’ve lived there off and on for about 65 years now. I went to Center Grove High School, and graduated from Franklin College. The community has always been great to me. I love giving back. At the time I first ran for trustee, I was working as a stockbroker, and it was some tough times … I had grown tired of the pressure and to an extent, I was very fortunate to go from dealing with people with greed to dealing with people with need. I enjoyed both, but I really enjoy my job now. I get to counsel, I get to help people. I tell them all the time, I understand life. You’re going to have your ups and downs, and I think it’s probably one of your worst days when you come to see me. But at the same token, it shows courage, and that you want to do what’s right for your family. I appreciate that. Why do I want to run again? It’s pretty simple. I want to take care of the people in White River Township.
What qualifications do you have that make you the best candidate for this position?
Fortenberry: I am a small business owner, and I’ve been living on my own household budget for years. I am the director of a local nonprofit so we have funds that we get and we try to be good stewards to people who donate to us. We don’t want to waste any of the money, we want to make every cent count. I need to get in there look at the books see what’s going on and see where we can make a difference. I’d like to try to make some different programs that don’t cost any money — work with the different nonprofits in the county. There’s some incredible nonprofits here in Johnson County that help people learn how to budget their own money. We have an incredible public library here that has a ton of
programs. I want to let people know that these programs exist, to have a condensed place that can they go to the website and find this information.
Messick: I know our community, and I’m able to know the families. I’m able to know the history of where people are at. And I have a kind heart. I truly want to see people not suffer. That’s important because since I’ve become trustee, the cemeteries have gotten the respect they deserve. And I’ve invited the community to use our facilities because they paid for them. I’ve owned two different businesses, been a stockbroker so I understand the economy. I kind of understand what’s going on in their world.
What do you feel are the most pressing issues facing the trustee’s office?
Fortenberry: I don’t know if you know this but we’re in a pandemic. I don’t think anybody should be thrown out, their electricity being cut off, or go to bed hungry in the middle of a situation that most of us can’t control. I think we need to try to figure out procedures to get the money where it can do the most good. I don’t want to throw good money after bad, but to be able to look at what’s going on and figure out, where is the waste? What’s going on here?
Messick: We try to keep things safe, we’re totally involved in this community, and we love this community. We try to be good stewards of the money. So many of our government units base their budgets on the maximum tax levy. I never believed that was right. I never believed, even when I served on the (township) board, that that was something the township should have done. And that’s where we got all of that extra money – we were taxing the people to what the state of Indiana would allow us. When I became trustee and saw how much money we had, the first time I ran, I kind of ran on the idea that we had way too much money. If we could find a way to give that money back to the people, I would do it. And I’ve done that.
Is the trustee’s office an important position here in the county?
Fortenberry: Most people don’t even know that it exists. When I go door-to-door, I’ve got my card and it’s got the information on it, I don’t put Democrat, because it doesn’t matter but that’s the first question I get. What is a trustee, that’s the second question, so most people don’t even know there is a trustee or what it does. These are your tax dollars; you’ve put money into this. It’s not like it’s given to you. This is allocated to the county, to the townships, for these exact purposes. So I want to get the information out to what’s available to you.
Messick: There are people, at no fault of their own, can’t pay their rent, can’t pay their utilities and are looking to put food on their table. Benjamin Franklin once said, and I’m paraphrasing, “Government should be about taking care of those people who can’t take care of themselves.” I love that. Government shouldn’t be about telling you everything single thing you should do, where you need to go and all of this other stuff. Government should be there to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. Those of us who can take care of ourselves, they need to leave us alone. I’m in the part of the government that is there to help the people who can’t take care of themselves.
Is there a way to help people understand a little more what the trustee does?
Fortenberry: I have a little Facebook page, and I put a few things out there. What I want to do is rebuild a website, which is not my specialty. I want to make it look like (the website) was done in the century and easy to navigate to be able to find — do you need food assistance, here all the food banks that are within 15 miles of White River Township, to let people know where they can go if they’re hungry tonight. To have some sort of program where maybe there’s an emergency bag with three meals in it. Three meals is not gonna make a lot of difference in somebody’s life, but it will for those three meals.
Messick: In today’s world, we have Facebook, all these different things. I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or any of those, but I do have a webpage, so I try to make it known to the people, if they want to go to whiterivertownship.org, we put a lot on their website that people might want to know. They can go in and read a lot of stuff. They can see our budgets, see our annual reports. They can see, if they want to use our community room, see how they can solicit that use of the community room. And we have all six cemeteries on that. We’re pretty transparent. We just don’t count on people finding out about ourselves; I invite our community leaders, our church leaders, in to tell them.
Are there any other messages you want to get out to the voters?
Fortenberry: I don’t care what side you’re on, vote. Democracy is on the election this year. I hear a lot of complaining and no solutions. There’s a lot going on with the Dobbs (v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) decision, there’s a lot of people feeling attacked. There is a lot more to that decision than just Roe v. Wade. Why do I want to run? That was my catalyst. Vote, everyone — right, left, in the middle, just vote.
Messick: Hopefully, they’ve recognized what we’ve done over the years. We do it behind the scenes, and we do it with great integrity. We do it by serving the community and taxpayers in the best way we can. Other forms of government need to start taxing the communities based on need, not want. The government doesn’t serve the people well if they always go to the maximum.
The Fortenberry File
Name: Suzanne Fortenberry
Family: Spouse, Chele S. Heid
Occupation: FedEx Express 24 years; own and operate Equality Engraving
Educational background: Tallulah Academy, Tallulah, Louisiana
Political experience: None
The Messick File
Name: Mark Messick
Family: Wife, Linda; three adult children
Occupation: Former investment executive; small business owner
Educational background: Center Grove High School graduate, 1971; Franklin College graduate, 1975
Political experience: Township board member for 10 years; White River Township trustee since 2010