COA: Bloomington Plan Commission member validly selected despite political party concerns

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A feud over who should fill an open seat on the Bloomington Plan Commission has been resolved after the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed Friday, finding the mayor’s nominee was validly appointed.

The city’s plan commission, made up of 10 members, includes five citizens appointed by Bloomington’s mayor.

In 2020, a dispute arose between William Ellis, the chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party, and Mayor John Hamilton regarding one of those open citizen spots.

Both Ellis and Hamilton appointed a person to the same vacant seat on the commission.

Ellis chose Andrew Guenther, claiming authority to do so pursuant to Indiana Code section 36-1-8-10. However, the city of Bloomington rejected his appointment and Hamilton appointed Christopher Cockerham instead.

Cockerham in 2019 voted in the Monroe County Democratic Party primary election. Before his commission appointment in May 2020, Cockerham had allegedly requested and submitted his ballot for the 2020 Monroe County Republican Party primary election.

Cockerham had not been certified as a member of the Republican Party on that date, but the mayor reaffirmed Cockerham’s appointment in June 2020.

Guenther resigned from the Republican Party in January 2021, according to a footnote.

The desired vacancy on the commission was left by Nicholas Kappas, who had been appointed to an open spot on the commission left by a Republican in February 2016. Kappas ended his term in January 2020.

Once rejected, Ellis and Guenther sued the city, Hamilton, Cockerham, and Kappas. The plaintiffs sought declaratory judgment and Writ of Quo Warranto naming Guenther the rightful holder of the seat.

When the Monroe Circuit Court determined that Guenther was entitled to the seat and ordered Cockerham to vacate the seat, the city  appealed, ultimately arguing that the judgment was clearly erroneous.

Finding that the judgment was indeed erroneous, the Court of Appeals of Indiana reversed in The City of Bloomington, Indiana, et al. v. Andrew Guenther, et al., 21A-MI-2600.

“As the Petitioners did not challenge Kappas’ qualifications on any basis other than his lack of political party affiliation, and as we have found that section 36-7-4-207 does not require a member of a plan commission to have a party affiliation, we conclude the trial court clearly erred in declaring Kappas’ appointment void ab initio,” Judge Margret Robb wrote on the first point of the appellate panel’s decision.

Additionally, the Court of Appeals found that because Kappas’ appointment was valid and he was unaffiliated with a political party, the Monroe County Republican Party chairman had no authority pursuant to Indiana Code section 36-1-8-10(d) to appoint a citizen member to fill the vacancy when the mayor did not make an appointment after 90 days.

“The chair of a political party only has appointment authority when the member whose term has expired is a member of that political party,” Robb wrote. “Thus, the trial court also clearly erred in declaring the Chairman had the authority to appoint Guenther to the Commission and in ordering that Guenther was immediately entitled to the seat.”

Finally, the appellate court concluded that Cockerham’s appointment did not cause the membership of the commission to exceed the stated number of members allowed from the same political party.

“Although we conclude that Cockerham was eligible to serve on the Commission when the Mayor appointed him on May 7 because the most recent primary election in Indiana in which he voted was a primary election held by the Republican party, we also note that the Mayor reaffirmed Cockerham’s appointment on June 3, one day after in-person voting for the 2020 Republican Party primary election was held,” Robb wrote.

“Even if the trial court’s conclusion as to what constitutes ‘the most recent primary election’ is correct, any defect in Cockerham’s earlier appointment would have been remedied when the Mayor, as the only authorized appointing authority for Kappas’ vacant seat, took this action after voting for the primary had concluded,” the opinion concluded.

Finding the judgment clearly erroneous, the COA reversed for Cockerham, finding he was validly appointed to the commission and may continue his service as such.

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