A new board in Wheatfield

By Cheri Shelhart

Diana Birky, Don (Robin) Gear and Richard (Dick) Hudgens discuss the election and their plans for the future as they prepare for 2020 as the new town council in Wheatfield.

WHEATFIELD — The three newly elected town council members, Don (known by his nickname Robin) Gear, Richard (Dick) Hudgens, and Diana Birky, met for the first time after their triumphal election win to discuss their candidacy and what they plan for the town when their term begins on Jan. 1.

Gear, the pastor of the 1st Baptist Church in Wheatfield has been a Wheatfield council member previously serving two terms eight years ago. He said he’s attempted to get back on the board since, but hadn’t been successful. This time, the three Republican candidates decided to run as a team rather than individually.

Hudgens, who won the most votes, four more than Birky and five more than Gear, said he’s retired and was ready to give back to the community he’s lived in for 27 years. He owned a business in town as well.

Birky has lived in the Wheatfield area her whole life, but recently moved within the town limits. She said she has the time now and she has a “heart for people and small towns.”

All three agreed that there are no pressing changes they feel they need to make. “The town is in good shape,” Gear said. “We’re not stepping into any big problems or issues.” Hudgens agreed, saying, “I have no complaints about the way things were going.”

There was only one incumbent running for re-election as board member Jeff Moolenaar and current council president, Dean Stalbaum, decided not to run for another term. Janice Moore, running as a Democrat lost her bid for reelection bringing in the least amount of votes among the six candidates running for the three seats.

The new board-elect said they believe this is a first for one party to sit on the board and it has been a very long time since the board has been filled with all new members.

Neither Hudgens nor Birky have held a public office prior to this.

“We want to preserve the small town atmosphere and be a part of its growth,” said Gear. The three plan to work closely with the Wheatfield Chamber of Commerce and the Jasper County Economic Development Organization to see what can happen.

“We’re close to Valparaiso and Rensselaer,” Gear said, but they know this isn’t the town for huge industry having no industrial park. Hudgens chimed in saying there are a lot of new houses going up. “We want to keep it as is with a little improvement,” he said. They agreed Wheatfield is a bedroom community and that’s how they like it, although they welcome Casey’s, which opened this year, and Dollar General, which is being built in town.

They would like to see the empty buildings downtown rehabilitated and used in a positive way. “We want to preserve the small town atmosphere and be a part of the growth,” Gear said.

Birky said she and Gear waited anxiously to hear the election results, but when the radio station signed off and they still hadn’t heard the outcome, they went to the town hall to find out what had happened. It was shortly afterwards that they learned all three had won. It took nearly two and a half hours for the 113 votes to be counted and verified by the polling inspector.

Sheila Martin, part-time deputy clerk, said she was among the vote counters, of which there were three. The ballots were paper ballots and the three people had to count the votes and they all had to match. It took three counts for all to match their numbers.

“We went through the ballots very carefully,” she said.

Due to the delayed counting and reporting of the results, this newspaper wasn’t able to get them in before the deadline. It was reported the next morning and posted on the website and Facebook page.

Now the three new council members will start putting their thoughts together as they prepare to take their seats in the new year. They all plan to attend training for town councils given by the association for municipalities the first week of December as well as a training session in January. “We’ll be pulling from state resources,” Gear said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel in the next 60 days.”

“We’re happy with the way things are. We just want to continue,” he said.