Court rules on Merit Board election

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Court of Appeals ruled today that John Buncich can retain his elected position on the Lake County Sheriff's Merit Board. In Lake County Sheriff's Merit Board v. John Buncich, et al., the court affirmed the trial court's decision in favor of Buncich's complaint for declaratory judgment and preliminary injunction, and in the alternative a temporary restraining order to prevent a new election.

Buncich ran for a vacant position on Lake County Sheriff's Merit Board in June 2006 and received 83 of the 120 votes cast. Prior to the election, it was determined there were 168 eligible voters. Lake County Police Department Chief Marco Kuyachich and Merit Board recording secretary Geraldine Larson concluded that Buncich did not win the election because he did not receive a "majority" of the votes of the LCPD members, even though he had the majority of votes cast. They argued 85 votes were needed to qualify as the winner, and the Merit Board voted to hold another election.

Buncich filed a complaint in the Lake Superior Court, asking the trial court to declare him the winner of the election and prohibit the Merit Board from taking any action until the vacant seat was filled. The trial court ruled in Buncich's favor.

In today's opinion authored by Justice Patrick Sullivan, the Merit Board sought an appeal stating the trial court should have dismissed Buncich's action because "an action in the nature of quo warranto is the only proper remedy." An action in quo warranto may be filed "[w]hen a person usurps, intrudes into, or unlawfully holds or exercises a public office or franchise in Indiana ..." I.C. §34-17-1-1(1).

According to the applicable statute, Judge Sullivan writes that there is no person against whom an action in quo warranto could be brought because no one occupies the seat on the Merit Board.

The Merit Board also argued that while Buncich received the majority of votes cast, he did not receive the majority vote of all the 168 members, thus he did not win the election, citing Indiana statute §36-8-10-3(b). Breaking down the statute, the court found that the word "majority" describes "vote" not "the members of the county police force." It concluded that based on I.C. §36-8-10-3(b), a successful candidate only needs to obtain a majority vote of the members who do vote. Judge Sullivan wrote also that the trial court did not error in using extrinsic sources to modify the plain meaning of the statute - in this case Robert's Rules of Order.

The Merit Board also argued that there was insufficient evidence before the trial court that Buncich was qualified to hold office as a member of the Merit Board. But because this issue was only argued and no evidence was introduced, the Court of Appeals ruled the Merit Board could not inject this issue at such a late stage.

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