A lawsuit was filed in Whitley County Circuit Court Tuesday against the county’s common council in response to an alleged illegal meeting in July.
The suit alleges a meeting by a majority of the council members July 28, thrown together just minutes after a scheduled meeting, was in direct violation of the Indiana Open Door Law.
At stake — a proposed tax levy on the residents living inside the Whitko School District.
The council is the tax governing body for the Whitko Community School Corporation. The school corporation was seeking a referendum, or a proposed property tax to be decided by the voters on Election Day Tuesday.
The proposed referendum calls for a tax designed to raise money for the corporation’s general fund.
The property tax can be as high as 20 cents for every $100 assessed valuation. School officials want the tax to make up for cutbacks in state revenue.
If the corporation determines that less money is needed to fill the gaps, the tax levy could be less.
Property owners in the Whitko district such as Terry Goodrich and Steve Sickafoose have opposed the tax and were incensed when the alleged illegal meeting took place.
Goodrich filed a complaint with the Indiana Public Access Counselor’s Office in response to the meeting, but the office claimed it didn’t receive the complaint prior to the 30-day deadline.
Sickafoose has a vested interest in seeing the tax referendum die on Tuesday at the hands of Whitko area voters.
His worse-case scenario would be a 20-cent tax.
“There are six or seven of us who are looking at a quarter million dollars,” Sickafoose said. “That’s a lot, don’t you think? The only way it can be stopped now is by the voters.”
Following the original meeting, according to Sickafoose and County Councilman Jim Bayman who did not attend the illegal meeting, Whitko School Corporation attorney John Whiteleather Jr. contacted all the board members but Bayman and asked that they meet again.
“I had my phone shut off,” said Bayman. “I probably wouldn’t have returned had I gotten the phone call.”
The referendum, which was defeated 3-1 in the first meeting with Tom Western voting for the tax, Kim Wheeler abstaining and the remainder of the councilmen voting against.
In the follow-up meeting, with Bayman absent, Glen LaRue again voted no, but John Barrett changed his mind to yes and Wheeler changed from an abstention to a yes vote.
Councilmen Jim Banks and Bill Overdeer were absent from both meetings.
Bayman was not pleased with the second meeting.
“To me, it’s a violation of the Open Door Law,” he said, adding that the referendum could sneak through if voters in Whitley County aren’t aware of it.
“I think there are a lot of people who don’t even know it’s on the ballot,” he said.
Whiteleather said this morning he’s not sure whether the second meeting was illegal or not. His contention is that the first meeting certainly was.
“The statute says ‘shall,’ not ‘may,’” Whiteleather said late this morning, referring to the council’s responsibility in passing the referendum. Whiteleather said the issue at stake is voters’ rights. “In essence, they (the council in the first vote) took away the legal rights of the voters to have a choice on the matter.”