Court rules Niles Township violated Open Meetings ActPublished 1:23pm Friday, September 2, 2011
It turns out two closed meetings held by the Niles Township board earlier this year may have violated the Open Meetings after all.
Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter told trustees in May that the board’s closed meetings on Feb. 22 and March 7 were legal, but a Berrien County judge disagrees.
Judge John Dewane ruled last month that the board did, in fact, violate the Open Meetings Act.
The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the township and individual township officials by Niles Township resident and City of Niles police officer Shane Daniel.
His attorney Jeff Crampton, of Grand Rapids, confirmed Friday that Dewane ruled in Daniel’s favor on open meeting violations. The judge granted the township summary disposition on two counts due to governmental immunity, he said.
Dewane left pending the three counts against the individual township officials: Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt, Treasurer Jim Ringler and township attorney Mary Lasata-Spiegel.
The closed meetings in question involved board members discussing a complaint made by Zoning Administrator Stefanie Woodrick against Ringler. Woodrick claimed Ringler tried to intimidate her into making illegal zoning changes that would have benefited Ringler, who works as a real estate broker.
A third party investigation concluded that Ringler didn’t violate township policy, although Township Supervisor Jim Kidwell is still waiting for a complete printed report of the findings.
The issue with the closed meetings, according to Daniel, is that the board didn’t properly notify the public of the reasoning for the closed sessions, a requirement of municipalities by law. The board went into the sessions for union and personnel discussions but actually discussed the investigation of Ringler.
“When a governmental entity goes into a closed meeting, they have to properly advise the public as to why they are going into a closed meeting,” Daniel said in an interview Thursday. “Because we have a right to know. They went under the pretenses of one thing and talked about another.”
Daniel’s complaint also alleges that May 2 the township illegally amended the minutes from the Feb. 22 and March 7 meetings to give the proper reasoning for the closed sessions. Kidwell was the only board member to vote no to amending the minutes.
Crampton said Michigan law requires municipalities to amend minutes at the following meeting.
“It was a cover-up, period,” Daniel said.
Kidwell was the first to bring the violations to the light when he brought the issue up during his supervisor report at an April board meeting.
“Those meetings shouldn’t have happened,” he said at the time.
Kidwell is being targeted for recall on accusations of divulging to the public information from one of those closed meetings through a press release he gave to media outlets in February.
Crampton said the remedy for the issue is still up in the air. When a municipality violates the Open Meetings Act, the court can overturn any action taken, require that the minutes and documents of the closed sessions be made public and order attorney fees and damages be paid to the plaintiff.
Crampton said he will discuss a possible remedy with the township attorney next week.
As far as the outstanding counts against the individual defendants, Crampton said his client is suing Ringler and Durm-Hiatt individually for violating the Open Meetings Act. Daniel also filed suit against Ringler, Durm-Hiatt and Spiegel for civil conspiracy, alleging that the three officials worked together to violate the act in order to cover up complaints against Ringler.
The suit also alleges the defendants illegally gave information from closed session to township resident Herschel Hoese, who started the recall effort against Kidwell.
Durm-Hiatt, Ringler, along with fellow township board members Dick Noble and Dick Cooper, are also facing a separate recall effort.
Durm-Hiatt said Friday that she was “surprised” by the judge’s ruling but didn’t want to comment on the open cases against her, Ringler and Spiegel.
“We’re just trying to move on,” she said.
Daniel and Kidwell are both cops for the Niles City Police Department, but Daniel said the lawsuit has nothing to do with his relationship with Kidwell. He also denied seeking the lawsuit for monetary gain.
“People are just fed up with the government running wild,” Daniel said. “It’s got to stop. (Township officials) have to start conducting themselves professionally. And that’s what this is all about.”