Court hears open meetings violation case against Ludington.

January 17, 2019

Judge Pete Wadel

Court hears Open Meetings Act violation case against Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

LUDINGTON — Are the deliberations of standing committees of the City of Ludington subject to the Open Meetings Act? This is a question that two Ludington citizens, Dianne Seelhoff and Tom Rotta, are trying to find out through a lawsuit against the city. A hearing to consider a summary disposition was held Monday morning in front of Judge Peter Wadel in 51st Circuit Court. A summary disposition is a judgement on stipulated facts.

Wadel, who serves as 79th District Court judge, has been presiding over the case since 51st Circuit Court Judge Susan Sniegowski recused herself from the case for personal reasons.

Seelhoff and Rotta are claiming that the city violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act when it considered a splash pad for Copeyon Park. The splash pad is a project proposed and overseen by a grassroots committee unrelated to the city. The splash pad committee, through private donations, has spearheaded the design work and fundraising of the pad which will be gifted to the city when it reaches its goal of $250,000.

Seelhoff, who lives on South Washington Avenue, in the vicinity of Copeyon Park, opposes the park as the location of the splash pad, as stated in correspondence with city officials found in court documents. In October 2017 she started corresponding with City Clerk Deborah Luskin about how the pad made its way to city council for approval.

Typically in local government, a project is brought in front of a standing committee (normally appointed by the elected council’s presiding officer — such as the mayor— with the approval of the council) which makes a recommendation to the elected officials, whom have the ultimate authority. Those meetings are subject to the Michigan Open Meetings Act (OMA) because the committees represent the city’s government. This includes posting meeting notices in a timeframe according to the act, and keeping minutes of the meetings. 

In an October 2017 email to Seelhoff requested to see minutes of the city’s Cemetery, Parks and Recreation Committee (CPRC) in an attempt to find out about deliberations by that committee in relation to the splash pad. Luskin responded that Jackie Steckel, assistant to the city manager, takes notes of the CPRC meetings but those notes are not considered minutes. Minutes must be approved, through a formal motion and vote, by the committee. Steckel’s notes do not go through that process.

On Dec. 15, 2017, Seelhoff and Dowland Street resident Tom Rotta, filed a lawsuit in 51st Circuit Court claiming the city violated the OMA, due to an alleged lack of properly posting the meeting notices, and by not keeping proper minutes. The lawsuit also contended that the city was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act because of the steep hill and poor driveway conditions at Copeyon Park.

The lawsuit also speculates that the splash pad will cost the city over $10,000 a year to maintain and that “there has been a history of public dissatisfaction with the city disregarding its citizens in deliberating on city park improvements in the past few years.”

In Jan. 2018 attorney Allan VanderLaan of the law firm Cummings, McClorey, Davis and Acho of Grand Rapids, representing the city, denied all the claims made by the plaintiffs.

The case is scheduled to go to trial, but both the defense and plaintiffs requested the summary disposition, which would have allowed for Judge Wadel to make a judgement without the trial.

Wadel asked about the process of how the CPRC receives a request from the public and its authority to make a decision.

“Part of our argument is there there is no delegation of authority from the city council and therefore the OMA does not apply to subcommittees,” attorney Bradley Yanalunas, arguing for the city said.

However, Rotta presented several examples of when the CPRC was presented with a request for an event, or some other action by a local company and the committee denied the request without sending its recommendation to the city council.

Yanalunas said the committees do not have to send the recommendations to the council because the city manager can make a decision based on the recommendation. However, Judge Wadel countered that the committees are appointed by the mayor with approval from city council and therefore they should be answerable to the council, not the city manager.

Rotta also stated that the practice of denying or a approving a request and then sending that recommendation to city council is not consistent.

“The city does not seem to have a mechanism or a vehicle telling (the committees) on what to act on, what to advise on,” Wadel said. “There is a lack of standards to guide these subcommittees in their functions so the citizens can know when to communicate with the city and when to communicate with the CRPC. They don’t know what is going on. Some of these things appear and then disappear. They don’t understand how this works. I am gathering you don’t know either,” Wadel said to the city’s attorney.

Yanalunas reiterated that the committees are advisory.

The plaintiffs also pointed out that the roles are advisory, as pointed out by then-city attorney Roger Anderson in 1985.

“I want to know how a matter gets to (the committees) so they can advise for, number 1, and number 2, what happens if it gets to them and they don’t approve it,” Wadel said. “Three, the plaintiff raised a good question on how all these decisions are being considered by the CPRC and then it is only advising the city manager and not advising the city council.”

Wadel denied the summary disposition by both the plaintiff and the defendant.

“There are facts in this issue that need to be figured out,” he said.

Wadel requested a grant by the plaintiffs to re-open discovery to address the questions raised about the city manager’s role in committee decisions.

A status conference was set for March 6 at 10:45 a.m.

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