Dode Hall’s civic engagement gives a voice to people of Knox County
For good or ill, lifelong resident Dode Hall has earned a name for himself in Vincennes.
As a concerned and outspoken citizen, Hall was for several years a self-appointed watchdog on city and county government, and paid close attention to what elected officials were doing and how they were spending taxpayer money.
His was a familiar face at local government meetings, and if people don’t know him personally, they may have read his “Letters to the Editor” he once wrote to the local newspaper.
He’s slowing down now, taking care of himself after a series of health problems this past year, though he still has opinions on local and national government, and he’s still willing to share them with anyone willing to listen.
“I may complain about things sometimes,” Hall said. “But I love this city. A lot of people think that I’m negative, but I’ve always been about whatever is best for the people of the community.”
A union construction worker for all of his working life, Hall never planned on getting involved in civic affairs. But when the Knox County Council was preparing to implement the County Adjusted Gross Income Tax (CAGIT) in the 1990s, he got concerned.
“They (Knox County Council members) were trying to push this through without it being advertised or without any discussion,” Hall said. “People didn’t really know how it was going to affect them. They didn’t know that they wanted to take a dollar for every $100 people made.”
After educating himself, Hall was determined to educate others. He printed flyers explaining the proposed tax and got friends to help him distribute them to hundreds of cars with Knox County license plates.
“We got them everywhere,” he said. “I distributed 2,300 myself.”
His efforts led to a special meeting at which hundreds of local residents showed up, crowding the halls of the Knox County Courthouse. There were heated debates. The original passage of CAGIT was rescinded, but another version of the same tax was passed later. Eventually city and county governments went on to levy other taxes on local residents.
“It’s not that I’m always against every tax,” Hall said. “But I want to make sure everyone knows just what the benefits will be and how the money will be used.”
Hall says his votes have never been tied to one political party, though there were only two years, he says, where he did not register as a Democrat. Interestingly, his heart surgeon in 2007 (he had triple bypass surgery) at St. Mary’s Hospital in Evansville, was none other than the current 8th District U.S. Congressman Dr. Larry Buschon – a Republican.
“I’ve had no problems since,” he said.
In voting he always believed in the right person for the job, and what that person was advocating at the time of an election. After that first bout of activism, he got involved in politics, and over the years has worked on behalf of the candidates for office he believed would do the right thing for the citizens of Knox County.
“Does my opinion matter?” he asked rhetorically. “When I voice it and get people to back me up, then our voices are heard through the ballot box.”
Hall enjoys a challenge, and he enjoys mixing it up in debates with officeholders, candidates, and other people in the community. He’s good natured about most things, but he’s careful to do his homework before engaging in a public verbal exchange.
His is a friendly face around town. Lots of people know Dode Hall. During a Main Street Fall Festival in early October, Hall was greeted by nearly every person who passed him on the street. He had been out of commission due to poor health, so being out in public put a gleam in his eye.
“People who’ve known me my whole life support me,” he said. “The people who’ve only known me since I’ve gotten into politics may not, depending on the issue.”
Since he worked hard for some political candidates, and because he has often spoken up as a citizen, several have asked why he hasn’t run for elected office. He’s considered it, but after a lot of thought decided against it.
“If I were elected, let’s say to the County Council, I’d be only one vote out of seven,” he said. “And I couldn’t chastise my fellow Council members if we didn’t happen to agree. And, I would have to work for the people.”
For the most part, Hall believes local organizations and local elected officials are good, but sometimes there are situations where plans or decisions are made on behalf of special interests, and not on behalf of all of the people. This is what bothers him the most.
“All along my mission has been to speak up for the people,” Hall said. “A lot of folks won’t speak up because they’re afraid of retribution, or afraid they will be made to look like a fool.”
He likes the efforts made to revitalize downtown Vincennes, but he’s opposed to non-profit organizations getting tax money — the people’s money — for their own interests. He was pleased at TIF (Tax Increment Financing) money being used for improvements in the city’s levee system, but isn’t sure that money is always used for things like that.
When he used to work for Rogers Construction, Hall said city streets used to always get paved.
“We would do whole streets, all over the city,” he said. “We used to do that continuously every year. Now hardly any of them have been touched.”
He hasn’t been to a County Council meeting in more than a year. The last time he was at a Vincennes City Council meeting was last spring, when the Council gave approval to the city’s Utilities Services Board to substantially raise water and sewer rates. He learned from officials everything that needed to be done, and agreed. But the money officials say is needed is too much.
“I understand the need for repairs and upgrades,” Hall said. “We need that. We have to do that. But they asked for a lot more money than what they really need, and they (City Council) went ahead and voted for it without any question. The worst part is that all of what was approved was an estimate — a guess — as to what they think they need.
“That’s the last time I went to a meeting,” he said.
By Bernie Schmitt