A row over who should fill a vacant seat on the Bloomington Planning Commission was resolved after the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned on Friday, finding the mayoral candidate had been validly nominated.
The 10-member City Plan Commission includes five citizens appointed by Bloomington’s mayor.
In 2020, a dispute arose between William Ellis, the Monroe County Republican Party Chairman, and Mayor John Hamilton regarding one of these open citizen spots.
Both Ellis and Hamilton nominated someone to the same vacant seat on the commission.
Ellis chose Andrew Guenther, claiming authority to do so under Indiana Code Section 36-1-8-10. However, the City of Bloomington rejected his nomination and Hamilton nominated Christopher Cockerham instead.
Cockerham in 2019 voted in the Monroe County Democratic Party primary election. Prior to his appointment to the commission in May 2020, Cockerham reportedly 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 nomination in June 2020.
Guenther resigned from the Republican Party in January 2021, according to a footnote.
The desired vacancy on the committee was left by Nicholas Kappas, who was appointed to a vacancy on the committee vacated by a Republican in February 2016. Kappas completed his term in January 2020.
Once dismissed, Ellis and Guenther sued the town, Hamilton, Cockerham and Kappas. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment and a 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 wrong.
Finding that the judgment was indeed erroneous, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed The City of Bloomington, Indiana, et al. against Andrew Guenther, et al.21A-MI-2600.
“As the petitioners have not challenged 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 that member of a plan commission has a party affiliation, we conclude that the trial court clearly erred in declaring the Kappas appointment void ab initio,” Judge Margret Robb wrote on the first point of the decision of the appeal committee.
Additionally, the Court of Appeals found that because Kappas’ nomination was valid and he was not affiliated with a political party, the chairman of the Monroe County Republican Party had no power, under section 36-1-8-10(d) of the Indiana Code, to appoint a citizen member to fill the vacancy when the mayor has not made the appointment after 90 days.
“The president of a political party has nominating authority unless the member whose term has expired is a member of that political party,” Robb wrote. “Thus, the trial court also clearly erred in declaring that the President had the authority to appoint Guenther to the Commission and in ordering that Guenther be immediately entitled to the seat.”
Finally, the Court of Appeal found that Cockerham’s appointment did not cause the number of commission members to exceed the stated number of authorized members of the same political party.
“Although we conclude that Cockerham was eligible to serve on the Commission when the mayor nominated him on May 7, because the last primary election in Indiana in which he voted was a primary election organized by the Republican Party, we also note that the mayor reaffirmed Cockerham’s nomination on June 3, a day after in-person voting for the 2020 Republican Party primary election,” Robb wrote.
“Even if the trial court’s finding as to what constitutes ‘the most recent primary election’ is correct, any flaws in Cockerham’s earlier appointment would have been corrected when the mayor, as the sole authorized appointing authority for the vacant Kappas seat, took this action. after the end of the vote for the primary”, concludes the opinion.
Finding the judgment clearly wrong, the COA overruled for Cockerham, finding that he had been validly appointed to the commission and could continue his service as such.