Ringler, Durm-Hiatt did not intentionally violate OMAPublished 1:23pm Monday, September 3, 2012
A Berrien County judge granted a judgment in favor of Niles Charter Township Treasurer James Ringler and Clerk Marge Durm-Hiatt, who were accused of violating the Open Meetings Act.
Following another evidentiary hearing Aug. 23 in St. Joseph, John E. Dewane, presiding judge of Berrien County Trial Court’s Civil Division, issued a seven-page judgment of no cause for action in favor of defendants Ringler and Durm-Hiatt and against plaintiff Shane Daniel on all claims made by Daniel against them individually.
“I am pleased that our justice system has cleared our names in the frivolous and unfounded complaint filed against us by Shane Daniel,” said Ringler, who lost his re-election bid in the Aug. 7 Republican primary. “While it is quick and easy to make allegations against elected officials, the road to defend those allegations through the courts is very time-consuming. More unfortunate is the fact that frivolous lawsuits cost every taxpayer in our township money and always do damage to the community. In the end, the truth always prevails and, even though it takes time to sort out the truth, that alone gives me further faith in our justice system.”
Dewane set 4 p.m. Sept. 19 for Niles Charter Township and Daniel to appear for a hearing on relief to be awarded in favor of the plaintiff and against the township for Open Meetings Act violations.
On Aug. 15, 2011, Dewane ruled that Niles Charter Township violated the Open Meetings Act by improperly calling closed sessions on Feb. 11 and March 7, 2011, and improperly amending the minutes on May 2, 2011.
The violations were a failure to adequately disclose in the motion to call a closed session or record in the regular meeting minutes the reasons for the closed sessions.
Specifically, Dewane found a violation of the Open Meetings Act by failing to disclose and record that the closed sessions were called at Ringler’s request to hear a complaint against the real estate agent.
The judge also found a violation of the Open Meetings Act by failing to disclose and record the specific pending litigation that the Feb. 22 closed session was called.
Finally, Dewane found a violation of the Open Meetings Act by correcting the minutes of the two earlier meetings at the May 2 meeting, after the time to correct had expired.
On May 21, 2012, Dewane found on the record then before him questions of fact which precluded summary disposition in favor of defendants Durm-Hiatt and Ringler on plaintiff’s claims of intentional Open Meetings Act violations, civil conspiracy and concert of action.
On June 1, 2012, Dewane entered an order denying Durm-Hiatt’s and Ringler’s motion for summary disposition along with an addendum to his May 21 ruling.
He convened an evidentiary hearing on June 26 to take evidence to resolve fact issues. Central to disposition of all three counts was defendants’ intent or motive.
Dewane found the record contains circumstantial evidence which could support a conclusion the defendants intentionally violated the Open Meetings Act, but the weight of the evidence, including credible testimony by the defendants themselves, persuaded him that in moving and voting for the closed sessions, Durm-Hiatt and Ringler did not intentionally violate the Open Meetings Act by either voting with a subjective desire to violate the Open Meetings Act or with knowledge that the Open Meetings Act was being violated.
Dewane further found that neither Durm-Hiatt or Ringler disclosed closed session information to Herschel Hoese.
“It is impossible for defendants to do something intentionally that did not occur,” the judge wrote.