Noblesville deputy mayor removed from Nickel Plate rail-trail project

Steve Cooke, shown July 27, 2017, is deputy mayor of Noblesville. (WISH Photo)

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — A set of emails caused the deputy mayor of Noblesville to issue a public apology Thursday and resulted in his removal from the project.

The emails were obtained through public information requests and originally published through the Hamilton County Reporter, a news-gathering partner with WISH-TV.

They reveal Deputy Mayor Steve Cooke tried to fill the seats of a public input forum on the Nickel Plate rail-trail meetings with supporters for the trail to prevent City Council members from being swayed by what he called a “vocal minority.”

Cooke asked the recipient to tell the supporters to arrive early and also said he was making the request privately.

“I obviously used a poor choice of words in that email. It was to another trail supporter and, for that, I’m sorry, and I’m sorry if I offended anyone else in our community,” Cooke said Thursday.

Noblesville resident Michael Saner told WISH-TV he was the man who completed the public information request for Cooke’s emails.

“I was disappointed and let down,” Saner said. “I want to believe people in city hall, our officials, people getting paid with our tax dollars, are representing us and have our best interests.”

Saner also said he wasn’t surprised by the email’s contents. He’s a member of the Save the Nickel Plate train group, and others there agree.

“I hate to start playing with the word ‘conspiracy,’ but it begs, where did this all come from,” said Logan Bay, another member of the group.

The issue is a lot larger than a set of emails. Save the Nickel Plate proponents accuse city leaders in Noblesville and Fishers of pushing their own trail agenda, using the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority as a cover to execute their plans, and not listening to the public.

Noblesville city leaders say the Save the Nickel Plate group is a very vocal minority, and the city is listening to the public’s opinion and is open to maintaining a northern stretch of the Nickel Plate rail.

“We want to save the train as well,” Noblesville Mayor John Distlear said. ” We want to keep the tourism part of the train, keep the historic part of the train, have the Polar Express, have the dinner train.”

Save the Nickel Plate members said the economic future for Noblesville is in railway public transit to places like Lucas Oil Stadium, the Indianapolis Convention Center and to other cities like Kokomo and Logansport. They said they believe they’re in the majority.

“Please open year ears and listen to your people,” Bay said. “They are screaming at you what they want. As a whole, you need to look at what the majority of the citizens want and stop labeling those that support the train as the minority because I don’t believe they are.”

Mayor Distlear issued a statement following the email release removing Cooke from the Nickel Plate project. He wrote, in part, “Deputy Mayor Steve Cooke and I have decided to turn his attention to other city projects and let the discussion about the Nickel Plate trail continue under the leadership of other city officials.”

According to the mayor’s office, next on the agenda in the rail-trail decision is a recommendation from the rail owners for new operators.

They say the Nickel Plate heritage railroad was removed as a result Port Authority’s safety inspection, and the owners now have five bids to choose from. The Heritage group is included in the bidders.

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