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COA: Commissioners couldn't dissolve district

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The Brown County Commissioners had no authority to enact an ordinance to attempt to dissolve a recently created fire district, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded today.

In Susanne C. Gaudin, et al. v. J.W. Austin, president, et al., No. 07A04-0909-CV-534, Susanne Gaudin and other plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief upon learning the Brown County Commissioners enacted an ordinance in January 2009 purporting to dissolve a fire district. That district was created by a September 2007 ordinance. The plaintiffs alleged the dissolution ordinance was void because no petition to dissolve the district or repeal the ordinance establishing it had been filed.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the commissioners, ruling there's no reason to conclude that a governing body with the authority to establish the fire protection district doesn't have similar authority to dissolve it.

The Court of Appeals reversed because the statute doesn't allow the commissioners to unilaterally decide to dissolve a fire district. Indiana Code Section 36-8-11 explicitly provides two sections for establishment of a district either by an ordinance or by a freeholder petition, but it only addresses dissolution of a district in one section. That section explains proceedings to dissolve a district may be instituted by filing a petition with the legislative body that formed the district. The petition must be signed by a certain number of freeholders and there needs to be a public hearing on the matter.

The commissioners argued they could dissolve the district pursuant to the "Home Rule" statute, but in Indiana, if there is a constitutional or statutory provision requiring a specific manner for exercising a power, the unit wanting to exercise that power must follow that specific provision.

The appellate judges concluded that it is apparent from the various requirements of freeholder involvement in the provision for dissolution of the district, and for objecting to the dissolution, that the legislature didn't intend for this procedure to be avoided by a unilateral act of the commissioners, wrote Judge Melissa May.

The appellate court directed for summary judgment to be entered in favor of the plaintiffs.

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