Judge rules in favor of the City of Lansing in legal battle with former councilman

by B.J. Tomlinson

District Judge Richard Stochl, who heard evidence presented at the December 5, 2014 trial between former Lansing City Council member William Burke and the City of Lansing, found in favor of the City in a ruling dated March 26, 2015. As a result of the ruling, the City of Lansing was found to be in the right on every one of six claims levied by Burke against the City, and Burke has been ordered to pay court costs of $240.80.
The litigation centered around an incident in 2012 regarding an opening meetings law violation that the Council claimed was instigated by Burke and which the City said put the City and Council members in legal jeopardy. At the time, Joseph Strobel was Lansing Mayor and Jeff Bechtel, Rebecca Conway, Ross Kolsrud, Deb Volker and Burke were Council members.
In February of 2013, Allamakee County Attorney Jill Kistler filed a lawsuit against the City Council and its individual members seeking monetary damages for the violation. The City then hired Attorney Dana Grant to represent the members of the Council. After her investigation, Grant advised the Council that some members faced fines between $100 and $500 for violations, but that Kistler would dismiss all charges if Burke were to resign his position on the Council. Councilwoman Deb Volker asked for Burke’s resignation at the March 6, 2013 Council meeting, but he refused.
May 6, 2013, based on the Lansing Municipal Code, newly-elected mayor Mike Verdon, who won a special election for that seat following Strobel’s resignation, presented a petition to the City Council to remove Burke for “willful misconduct and maladministration in office,” according to Lansing Municipal Code, and the Council voted to hold a public hearing to consider the petition and  give Burke an opportunity to respond. The hearing, which was held June 3 of that year, resulted in Burke’s removal. Burke then petitioned the Court for a Writ of Certiorari to determine the legality of the City’s action.
According to Court documents, Burke had asserted his removal was illegal because “1) The petition for removal was not verified  as required by Iowa Code Section 66.5; 2) The petition did not provide Burke with sufficient notice as to the reason he was being removed thereby violating his due process rights and provisions of Iowa Code Section 66.29;   3) Burke did not receive a fair hearing because of how evidence was presented and considered by the council and the existence  of a conflict of interest in the voting  council members; 4) Burke could not be removed because under Iowa Code Section 21.6 (3)(d) no prior violation of Iowa Open Meetings Law has been shown; and 5), The oral motion for his removal was vague and there are no specific findings of fact.”
Judge Stochl responded to Burke’s allegations in his ruling, explaining: “Burke knew better than to go into closed session against the advice of the City Attorney, that the Council should “have the ability to police its own” and  “...Iowa Code does not apply - he was removed under a Lansing City Ordinance which was properly filed.”  He went on to say, “Burke lastly argues that his violation of the open meetings law needed to be adjudicated and that a finding that he had indeed violated that law before he could be removed by the Council. This argument has no merit. The findings of another tribunal would not be binding on the Council. They were not required to wait until the lawsuit was resolved,” referring to the open meetings violation brought against the Council by Kistler.
Judge Stochl concluded his ruling by stating, “... the court finds that substantial evidence existed to support the City of Lansing’s removal of William Burke from the City Council of the City of Lansing and that he was afforded due process in the removal procedure.”
After learning of the decision, current Lansing Mayor Mike Brennan commended the Council “...for sticking up for its principles and following through on what they believed to be right.”
Burke, however, responded by saying, “Nothing has been settled. If you want more information, contact my lawyer.”