Appeals court overturns Rotta lawsuit against Ludington charter vote

February 22, 2024

Appeals court overturns Rotta lawsuit against Ludington charter vote

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

GRAND RAPIDS — After two years of court battles, the City of Ludington can move forward with its charter revision commission. A three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel overturned a 51st Circuit Court ruling that favored Ludington resident Tom Rotta, who had claimed election fraud against the City of Ludington following the approval by voters to form a charter revision commission.

On May 3, 2022, voters in the City of Ludington passed a ballot proposal, 667-411 (68 percent to 38 percent) approval a general revision of the city’s charter. Michigan law requires voter approval in order to start the process of revising the city charter, which is similar to a local constitution. State statute also requires that voters elect a charter commission.

In June 2022, Rotta, who has filed multiple lawsuits against local municipalities and elected officials over the years, filed suit in 51st Circuit Court claiming the city did not place potential salaries of the charter commission members on the ballot and therefore voters did not have all the information needed to approve the revision request. Rotta’s lawsuit called for the election to be voided.

City Manager Mitch Foster said he was pleased with the outcome.

Rotta had been a write-in candidate for the charter commission but did not gain enough votes to be seated on the nine-person commission.

The city had budged $81,600 for the charter revision with $20,250 set aside for commissioners’ compensation, which came to about $2,250 per commissioner.

The city’s attorney argued that the budgeted amount fulfilled the city’s legal requirement to establish charter commissioner salaries. The charter gives city council authority to determine salaries of appointed officials and employees. Rotta disagreed.

Judge Mark Wickens presided over the circuit court case after Judge Susan Sniegowski recused herself. Wickens is a retired Lake County Trial Court judge.

Wickens ruled that adoption of the general budget may have been sufficient to fix the expenses for a revision commission, but was insufficient to fix the compensation in accordance with state statute.

“I would say by not—by not complying with the statute, which is required under MCL 117.19, not putting that out there as far as the compensation, that would be a material thing that voters should—should’ve been informed of,” Wickens stated, according to court documents. “And so, do I think that was done intentional? No. But on the other hand, I think that’s—that’s material for the voters to understand that so.”

Wickens issued a ruling in favor of Rotta, the plaintiff, on Jan. 23, 2023. The City of Ludington then filed an appeal.

In its ruling, overturning the circuit court decision, the court of appeals stated: “For two separate reasons, plaintiff was not entitled to quo warranto relief. First, the city committed no error in conducting the election. Second, even if it did, plaintiff produced no evidence that the error was material to the election results.”

The appellant court also stated that the circuit court “abused its discretion by implicitly granting plaintiff’s application for quo warranto relief. Again, defendant applied for leave to file a quo warranto complaint pursuant to MCL 600.4545, which requires in part that a successful plaintiff provide facts showing that any error was ‘material.’

“Here, not only did the trial court fail to make any finding on the basis of plaintiff’s proofs that the outcome of the election may have been different, but plaintiff failed to disclose facts sufficient to support a fact finding that any error in fixing the compensation and/or expenses for the charter revision commission in accordance with (state statute) MCL 117.19 might have altered the outcome of the election. In his complaint, plaintiff alleges that through omission of expenses, voters were led to believe that a vote for a charter commission would impose no additional costs on the citizens of Ludington, and ‘[b]ased upon the allegations contained herein, material fraud or error occurred in Ludington’s special election on May 3, 2022 so that the outcome of the election was affected, namely voters had a legal right to know what the proposed charter commissions’ compensation and the money for the expense thereof was fixed at before they cast an up or down vote on whether to do a charter revision.’

“These allegations, however, are purely speculative, and no evidence produced by plaintiff supports a different conclusion… And, as provided above, much of the information regarding the costs of a charter revision commission—including the total amount budgeted for each year of its operation—were publicly available. Further, although the trial court found that it was ‘material’ for voters to have knowledge of compensation for charter revision commission members, that is not a finding that any error in fixing compensation and expenses under MCL 117.19 was material such that it might have affected the outcome of the election. Accordingly, the trial court erred by granting plaintiff’s motion for summary disposition and thereby implicitly abused its discretion in granting his application to proceed quo warranto.

“We reverse and remand for entry of an order granting defendant’s motion for summary disposition. We do not retain jurisdiction.”

The order was issued by judges Noah Hood, Christopher Murray and Allie Maldonado.




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