Denial of lawsuit against City of Lansing reversed by Iowa Court of Appeals

by B.J. Tomlinson

The Iowa Court of Appeals has overturned a March 26, 2015 ruling regarding a suit filed against the City of Lansing by former Lansing City Councilman Bill Burke. The suit centered around a 2012 incident regarding an open meetings law violation and a suit filed against the City of Lansing and its Council members by Allamakee County Attorney Jill Kistler.

Burke was removed from the Council in 2013 for "willful misconduct and maladministration in office" and a trial contesting that dismissal was held in December of 2014. District Court Judge Richard Stochl ruled against Burke and ordered him to pay court costs of $240.80. At the time, Lansing's mayor was Mike Verdon and the Council members, in addition to Burke,  included Deb Volker, Jeff Bechtel, Rebecca Conway and Ross Kolsrud.

After the trial, Burke filed a petition for writ of certiorari in which he challenged his removal from the Council, but that request was denied by the Allamakee County District Court. The case was subsequently submitted to the Iowa Court of Appeals and was reviewed by three judges, all of whom ruled in favor of Burke.

The Court of Appeals ruling, which was filed and recorded April 19 of this year, stated that the Lansing City Council's "...removal proceeding violated procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 9 of the Iowa Constitution." The conclusion explained in court documents was that the Council: 1) did not have sufficient evidence to establish "...willful misconduct and maladministration in office..."; 2) unlawfully intermingled legal functions; and 3) presented no facts or reasons for their removal decision.

In light of the reversal decision, Iowa Code chapter 66 authorizes Burke to recover his expenses and attorney fees. Burke is not sure of the amount of the settlement at this time and indicated he will not be pursuing further legal action against the City, County Attorney or City Council. "But someone else could," Burke said. He also stated he has no plans to seek re-election to the Council.

None of the past or present Lansing City Council members have responded to requests for comments concerning the ruling. However, current Lansing Mayor Mike Brennan, speaking on behalf of the City, stated, "While the lawsuit was overturned on what I might believe to be a 'technicality,' the underlying issues and the reason the City took action, mainly the concern over open meeting laws violations, was still a severe issue that the Mayor and Council thought needed to be addressed, so they took action. Ultimately, I believe everyone would just like to see closure in this entire episode."

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