A Kalamazoo County Circuit Court judge ruled county commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act and “jumped the gun” in an attempt to condemn a family-owned lakefront property inside Prairie View County Park, according to a story by MLive.
A Sept. 3 resolution passed unanimously by the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners to begin the process of taking ownership of the property was made without public input and followed a series of meetings conducted behind closed doors without proper notice, Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Alexander C. Lipsey ruled Wednesday, Dec. 18.
Lipsey threw out the board’s decision and ruled the issue must be revisited in open session at a future county commission meeting.
“I don’t believe that there was an open discussion or compliance with the Open Meetings Act to determine whether in fact the resolution should be adopted and, on that basis, I am going to grant the motion to quash the Sept. 3 resolution,” Lipsey said in court, as reported by MLive and WKZO.
“I require that the matter, pursuant to the Open Meetings Act, be placed on an agenda for public discussion and public debate,” Lipsey continued. “Obviously we don’t know the position of county commissioners in regard to this, but unless there is actually an open discussion I think we will never know. I expect there will be plenty of communication between the parties.”
The attorney representing the county, Allan Vander Laan, argued the purpose of an agenda is for the benefit of the commissioners, and that not everything should be open for public debate.
Arguing the commission was covered by attorney-client privilege when it went behind closed doors, Vander Laan went on to say the property owners could have come to the Sept. 3 meeting, when the issue was listed on the consent agenda. They had the chance to speak at the beginning of the meeting, during the public comment period, but did not, he said.
That opportunity for public comment was not good enough, Lipsey said.
“From what I can see, the county has continually jumped the gun in regards to whether they can have this particular piece of property,” the judge said in court, according to MLive. “I do believe that that action, at the end of June of this year taken by the administration was carrying out a decision that had been made with regard to exercising dominion over that parcel and going forward with their claim as to condemnation or flat out ownership.
“That decision, obviously, was not communicated to anybody other than administration.”
Levine & Levine Managing Partner Randall Levine, who represents the families’ heirs, argued that the agreement does not state the property cannot remain in the family, but simply that the county has first right to purchase. His clients have not had the opportunity to be heard, Levine argued, prompting an Oct. 11 lawsuit against the county seeking to retain rights to their property.
The condemnation process began when county commissioners initially approved a motion to terminate the plaintiff’s interest in the property in June, attempting to deny the family heirs, the Nalanda and Heeter-Johnson families, access to their property.
Levine argued in court on Dec. 18, county commissioners met behind closed doors without giving proper notice on the agenda or stipulating the reason for going into closed session. Those closed sessions occurred during meetings held on July 2 and July 16, Levine said in court.
In both occurrences, the board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act, Levine argued.
“The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to promote governmental accountability by permitting public access to official decision-making and to provide a means to which the general public may better understand issues and decisions of public concern,” Levine argued during the Dec. 18 motion hearing, as reported by MLive.
Lipsey agreed, stating in his ruling on Wednesday that the decision was made behind closed doors and without notice and must be revisited in open session at a future county commission meeting.
“There is an open forum in which all parties can express their opinion, if you will, as to the propriety of a condemnation process,” Lipsey said. “In this manner, it is clear that, at least to this point, there has not been that public input into the deliberative process and I’m not quite sure why.”
Meetings are required by law to be open to the public, and while there are exemptions for a public body to go into closed session to discuss a matter, the government needs to stipulate the reason for going into closed session and any decision must be made in public; something that did not happen at any in the June 4, July 2 or July 16 meetings, Levine said in court.
“These people are citizens and they are entitled to know that a legal opinion is being considered pertaining to their property,” Levine told MLive. “No one, including the plaintiffs, was ever informed that the legal opinion referenced in the minutes pertained to them or any issues about Prairie View. They are not clairvoyant, how the heck are they supposed to know?”
It is unclear when or how the Kalamazoo County Commission intends to continue the process of taking over the property in question, according to WKZO. None of the commissioners or county staff involved in the passage of the resolution have made public statements so far regarding the matter.