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By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

September 1, 2023

Christopher Dickinson, the Concord Township Assessor in Elkhart, told police he has four Facebook accounts and when he posted an endorsement of a candidate for the local school board, he thought he was using one of his personal pages.

However, he had put the endorsement on the official Concord Assessor Facebook page – a violation of state law.

Dickinson, a Republican, subsequently faced criminal charges and, in July, entered into a pre-trial diversion agreement. If he pays his fine, does community service and undergoes a behavior modification evaluation, he will avoid prosecution.

 Dickinson and Elkhart County Republican Party officials did not return requests for comment. However, Elkhart County Democratic Party chair Chad Crabtree said he was glad the incident became public to show that elected officials should be held to a higher standard.

“It would be nice if he would wear orange on the side of the road when he’s cleaning up,” Crabtree said of Dickinson’s community service. “I don’t know if that’s going to happen but sweeping it under the rug, for a public official, is not a good thing. It should be front and center because, again, they hold the public trust and if I can’t trust you, I don’t know if I’m going to vote for you again.”

Dickinson is not alone. Other Indiana politicians have gotten into hot water over their social media posts.

In particular, Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, has been criticized multiple times for putting what have been described as racist and sexist images and messages on his Facebook page and for including a quote attributed to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. The lawmaker has repeatedly rejected the criticism, maintaining his posts are not racist, but, in 2020, Statehouse GOP leaders stripped him of his interim study committee positions for controversial posts.

Also Sen. Jack Sandlin, R-Indianapolis, faced a backlash in 2017 when his Facebook page displayed a derogatory comment about women. The former Marion County City-County Councilman responded by deleting the post and saying he was not sure how the message got on his social media feed.

Laura Merrifield Wilson, associate professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis, is familiar with elected officials’ missteps on social media but is unaware of an officeholder being charged with a crime. Still she noted the gravity of Dickinson’s action because while Lucas and Sandlin shared contentious images and messages, they used their personal social media accounts and did not endorse any political candidate.

“It is that separation as we keep emphasizing between the personal and the political,” Wilson said. “Personally, you can endorse; personally, you can share all sorts of views, however, controversial they might be. But in the political capacity – and even though Facebook is just social media – using that professional or the political account does make it very different.”

‘Everyone started having a fit’

Dickinson admitted posting the endorsement to the assessor’s official Facebook page was a mistake.

According to the probable cause affidavit filed, Dickinson was responding to a message in August 2022 about the local school board race. “Obviously you like paying more taxes than you should… I don’t agree with the mismanagement of the school district and the deception of the 4.1 million dollar bond on top of the lost referendum which was announced 1 day after that failed referendum,” Dickinson wrote. “Crystal Kidder for school board.”

He told the Indiana State Police investigating officer that he posted the message to Facebook using his cellphone while he was at home. When “everyone started having a fit about his post,” Dickinson said he realized his message was on the Concord assessor’s social media page. He then deleted the post.

However, the affidavit noted the assessor’s Facebook page was clearly labeled. It displayed a logo with the assessor’s building. The words “Concord Township Assessor” and “Elkhart County” were also visible on the page.

 Aaron Mishler, a Democratic councilman on the city of Elkhart Common Council, took screenshots of Dickinson’s post, cited to the state laws he thought the assessor could have violated and sent the information to Elkhart County Prosecutor Vicki Becker.

He was skeptical anything would come of his complaint, he said, because “Elkhart County is very red Republican” and both Dickinson and Becker are members of the local GOP. The councilman said he did not know the prosecutor’s office had taken action until he received an email informing him Dickinson had entered into a pre-trial diversion agreement.

Mishler said he brought the matter to the prosecutor’s attention because Dickinson used the assessor’s official page to “harass a private citizen.”

“I’m not comfortable with an elected official using their personal page to do that, let alone a government office, because that implies the entire assessor’s office is going at this person which I do not agree with at all,” Mishler said.

Dickinson was charged with one count of “misuse of government property in an election,” a Class A misdemeanor. Under the terms of the diversion agreement he entered into, the state will withhold prosecution if he participates in rehabilitation and does not engage in any additional criminal behavior for a specified period of time.

The assessor agreed to pay fees and costs of $454, perform 20 hours of community service, and undergo a Moral Reconation Therapy evaluation.

If Dickinson meets the requirements of the agreement, the case will be dismissed. If he fails to do so, the state will proceed with prosecution.

In a statement to The Indiana Citizen, Becker declined to comment on the specifics of Dickinson’s case, since it remains pending before the court. But she did include a general explanation of diversion agreements, which are typically used in non-violent misdemeanor cases to encourage the accused to avoid further criminal behavior.

“The goals of a prosecution are always to protect public safety and prevent future criminal acts,” Becker said in an email. “Depending upon the unique facts and circumstances present with every offense, and with every offender, what motivates one person to correct their thinking and behavior may not always work for others. However, if someone is willing to acknowledge their errors and take meaningful steps to improve, and to consistently maintain that behavior for a significant period of time, the State recognizes that a more minor consequence is generally sufficient to accomplish the goals.”

Mishler said this is not the first time Dickinson has attracted backlash for his social media posts. The councilman said Dickinson has used the assessor’s Facebook page to troll Mishler’s personal Facebook account with “laughing emojis and things like that.”

When Dickinson accepted the diversion agreement, the councilman posted the news on Reddit and highlighted that the assessor had said on social media that Mishler and his Republican colleague on the Common Council, Brian Thomas, should be “eradicated from office.”

As one of the few elected officials in Indiana of the Jewish faith, Mishler said he was concerned about the use of the word “eradicated.” He does not think Dickinson was being anti-Semitic but said “it’s just seeing the words like ‘eradicated’ from an elected official. I think that’s beneath the office.”

Crabtree said Dickinson’s actions likely would have gone unnoticed if Mishler had not contacted the prosecutor’s office. The Democratic Party chair speculated the assessor might have just gotten lazy and posted to the wrong site, but he said the expectations are clear that officeholders do not do politics on official time or on official spaces.

“Elected officials on either side need to be held accountable for the actions they do,” Crabtree said. “Unfortunately, this county has been red for so long that there are no checks and balances. So I do commend the prosecutor for pursuing this and filing charges. She’s saying, ‘No, as an elected official, someone who holds the public trust, you can’t do politicking on work computers, work time, or on your official page.’”

Great benefit but high risk

Wilson, the UIndy professor, said social media offers the benefit of keeping public officials connected with the voters but also carries the potential for harm, in part, because of the near-instantaneous pace.

Before Facebook, Wilson said, constituents put their thoughts and concerns on paper then dropped their letters into the mail. The voters knew they would have to wait to hear back because the elected officials would have to receive the letters, write the responses and mail them. Now, people expect an immediate reply and officeholders, wanting to meet voter demands, type a comment or an answer to a question on their social media accounts without thinking through all the ramifications or potential effects.

That can lead to criticism over an inappropriate post and, as the Dickinson and Lucas cases show, some kind of sanction.

Wilson sees ugly social media posts as rippling beyond politicians.

People will be discouraged from running for office, not wanting to subject themselves and their families to a negative dynamic, which will mean fewer competitive races, Wilson said. Voters have the power of the ballot box, but their ability to hold an official accountable is taken away if that official does not have an opponent in the election.

The political-science professor hopes politicians learn from the mistakes of others.

“Social media allows you to connect with people in a way that just no other form of communication presently is able to do,” Wilson said. “Certainly there are a number of risks but what I would hope to see is that in our political dynamic in the future, we’re able to harness the advantages, the benefit, and be just a little bit more thoughtful and careful.”

Mishler, who served as a medic in the National Guard, relies on social media to connect with his constituents. Caucused onto the Elkhart Common Council in 2020, he saw that community residents were not attending meetings or following the council coverage in the newspaper and on television news. He said he posts on Facebook and other social platforms to let people know what the council will be discussing and how the council members voted on particular issues.

Dickinson has since blocked Mishler on social media, according to the councilman, and has not attempted to communicate or apologize.

“I hope he gets the support and help that he needs,” Mishler said. “But I also think it’s refreshing to see that even in a very Republican County like Elkhart County, Dickinson was held accountable.”

Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier Journal. 

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