On Friday morning, the city of Bloomington filed its last brief with the state’s court of appeals, in the case that will decide who has the rightful claim to a Bloomington city plan commission seat.
Is it Chris Cockerham, the appointment made in summer 2020 by Bloomington’s mayor, Democrat John Hamilton? Or is it Andrew Guenther, the appointment made earlier, in the spring of 2020, by Monroe County GOP chair William Ellis?
Both Cockerham and Guenther are currently Republicans, under the statutory definition of party affiliation. The appointee could not be a Democrat, because that would exceed the limit of appointees who are members of the same political party.
Now starts the wait for the court of appeals to decide how to handle the case. It seems somewhat unlikely that the whole lawsuit would be wrapped up before the plan commission considers the question of an upcoming citywide zone map revision. Cockerham has bee serving on the plan commission since summer 2020.
In a press release issued Thursday, Monroe County Republican Party chair William Ellis announced he has named Doug Horn to the five-member board of Bloomington Transit (BT), the local public transportation corporation.
Horn is a Bloomington businessman and former Monroe County plan commissioner.
It’s not the usual way appointments are made to the BT board, and might be disputed by Bloomington’s city council.
Under state statute, the seat to which Ellis has named Horn is supposed to be appointed by the Bloomington city council.
After a judge ruled on Friday to deny Bloomington’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit about a plan commission seat, on Monday the city asked the judge to allow for a quick appeal on the ruling.
By ruling on Friday against Bloomington’s bid to get the case dismissed, local special judge Erik Allen was allowing the lawsuit to go forward. If successful, the lawsuit could change the membership of Bloomington’s city plan commission.
If the lawsuit filed by Monroe County GOP chair William Ellis and would-be plan commissioner Andrew Guenther is successful, Guenther would replace Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s appointment to the seat, Chris Cockerham.
The seat became vacant at the start of the year when Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton decided not to re-appoint Nick Kappas to the plan commission.
On Monday, Bloomington filed a request asking local special judge Erik Allen to certify his denial of the city’s bid to get the case dismissed, so that Bloomington can ask for the court of appeals to look at Allen’s ruling.
It’s called an interlocutory appeal, which is a way for a party in a lawsuit to ask for a second opinion on a ruling during a case, before proceedings have concluded in the lower court.
Ten days ago, on Aug. 5, a hearing was held about Bloomington’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit that could affect the membership the city’s plan commission.
On Friday (Aug. 14), special judge Erik Allen issued an order that lets the lawsuit go ahead.
Allen denied Bloomington’s motion to dismiss the case in a 125-word order that included a lifting of a previously imposed stay on the discovery process. That means both sides can now proceed with document requests and deposition of witnesses.
On one side are Monroe County GOP chair William Ellis and his pick for city plan commissioner, Republican Andrew Guenther. On the other side is Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, with his pick, Republican Chris Cockerham.
In the pending lawsuit over the rightful appointee to a city plan commission seat, the city of Bloomington filed a motion on Monday to have Andrew Guenther’s claim dismissed, based on the idea that Guenther lacks standing to file the lawsuit.
Bloomington’s claim that neither Guenther nor Republican county chair William Ellis have standing is based on Bloomington’s contention that even if the facts alleged by Guenther and Ellis are assumed to be true, they “are incapable of supporting relief.”
In this case, Guenther and Ellis are challenging the right of Chris Cockerham to hold the plan commission seat, based on an appointment by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton, made in early May.
Guenther and Ellis say that Guenther is the rightful appointee to the seat, under Indiana state law, which says: “The county chair of the political party of the member whose term has expired shall make the appointment.”
Bloomington’s argument for dismissal hinges on the fact that that “the member whose has term expired,” namely Nick Kappas, was not a Republican.
In the lawsuit, Andrew Guenther asserts that he has been duly appointed by GOP Monroe County chair William Ellis, and should serve on the commission instead of Cockerham.
It’s not yet decided which judge will hear the case. Owen County circuit judge Kelsey Hanlon, who’s facilitator of District 20, has been asked to appoint a special judge. One of 26 judicial districts the state, District 20 is made up of Monroe, Owen, Lawrence, and Greene counties.
In mid-April, Ellis declared his right to make the appointment as chair of the Republican Party. The announcement from Ellis came after Hamilton for several weeks did not fill the vacancy that was left when Hamilton decided not to re-appoint Nick Kappas. Kappas’s term expired at the end of 2019.
The city of Bloomington confirmed to The Square Beacon on Thursday afternoon that the mayor, John Hamilton, has appointed commercial real estate broker Chris Cockerham to fill the vacancy on the city’s plan commission. The plan commission is a nine-member group, five of which seats are appointed by the mayor.
The vacancy was created in January, when Nick Kappas was not reappointed.
In a statement sent to The Square Beacon city attorney Mike Rouker said, “[T]he Mayor was pleased to select Chris for service on the commission. We are very excited about this appointment, and we are looking forward to Chris and the rest of the plan commission getting back to the important work they do for our community.”
Reached by The Square Beacon on Thursday, Cockerham said, “I’m ready to serve and happy to serve. Hopefully, it works out.”
At a meeting that took less than an hour Monday evening, Bloomington’s plan commission voted unanimously to approve the version of the updated unified development ordinance (UDO) that the city council adopted last year.
Commissioners also elected officers. Brad Wisler will continue as president, and Jillian Kinsey will serve as vice president.
The plan commission also sent a proposed planned unit development, from Trinitas Development, to the city council with a unanimous positive recommendation. The proposed project is on 39.29 acres on West 17th Street, southeast of the I-69 and SR 46 interchange.