CLINTON — A Clinton County District Court judge has ruled the city of Clinton violated the state Open Meetings Law in discussing budget and personnel reductions in a closed-door meeting last year.
The ruling came in a case filed by former Human Resource Director Dave Geisler, who lost his job in the reductions. The summary judgment covered one meeting, and a hearing must be held regarding a second meeting the lawsuit cited.
The suit was filed against the city of Clinton and office holders at the time: Mayor Rodger Holm and council members Mark Vulich, Jennifer Graf, Paul Gassman, Charlie Mulholland, Bev Herman, Mike Kearney and Maggie Klaes.
Clinton city officials were not immediately available for comment.
Judge Mark Smith granted the summary judgment concerning a meeting held Sept. 13, 2011. He said the records showed the meeting was called to discuss personnel matters, but no individual requested the closed meeting. The transcripts of the meeting showed the issues discussed were the elimination of departments, severance pay and other budget-reduction proposals and not the performance of specific employees. The city was looking to make up an $800,000 shortage in the budget.
Smith wrote that although the notification for the Sept. 13 meeting was proper, the discussion at the meeting did not comply with the Open Meetings Law.
The ruling states that the meeting involved policy-making decisions and went beyond an irregularity or technical violation of the law. Smith said the closed session affected the public’s ability to give the council input or to be aware of the reasoning of the council concerning the elimination of the positions and severance packages offered to employees who would lose their jobs.
Smith also wrote that there would not have been needless and irreparable injury to any employee’s reputation had the session been held in public.
“The court is aware of the fact that no formal vote was taken during the closed session, however, in reading the transcript, it would appear that council members clearly indicated their positions and, with a wink and a nod, indicated to the administrator (City Administrator Jeffrey Horne) that it was his decision to make,” Smith wrote.
The judge stated that the law was created to allow the public and city employees to be aware of what council members are doing and their reasoning when the eliminated positions. The council’s decision to close the meeting violated that, he said.
In his lawsuit, Geisler also claimed that a Sept. 2, 2011, meeting also violated the Open Meetings Law. Smith ruled that proper procedures were followed in closing the meeting, but he did not have a transcript from the meeting and couldn’t decide whether the discussion violated the law.
During that meeting, council members met with Jessica Kinser, who was hired as finance director for the city.
The damage or penalty phase for the violation in the summary judgment will be heard at the same time as the trial over the Sept. 2 meeting, Smith wrote.