by Melanie Thwing
Schauer v. Grooms
(Nebraska Supreme Court, August 6, 2010)
Curt and Susan Schauer live just outside of Ord in Valley County, Nebraska. In 2005 the City decided to recruit a developer to build and operate an ethanol plant on undeveloped land. Eventually, Redevelopment Area #3 (located 4 miles outside of the City’s border, and 1/8th of a mile from the Schauer’s farm) was chosen as a potential plant site. Redevelopment Area #3 was declared blighted, then the city annexed the land to make TIF financing available for the project.
After Val-E Ethanol was selected to construct and operate the plant numerous city council meetings were held. These meetings spanned from February to November 2005, from the time the land was blighted, a plan adopted, a financing agreement was decided and the land annexed. These meetings were publicly noticed, consistent with Nebraska’s Open Meetings Act; however, on June 1, 2005 a dinner and tour of a similar ethanol facility were hosted by the Valley County Economic Development Board hosted without public notice. Invitations were sent to numerous county residents including Schauers (who did not attend). Three of five city council members, and the mayor, were in attendance. (The city council consists of five people, overseen by the mayor who provides the deciding vote if there is a tie). The council members and the mayor were split into separate groups to tour – one group watched a video explaining the ethanol-making process while the other toured the plant. At the dinner the members of the council and the mayor discussed no information relating to the proposal.
Four months after the city council approved the annexation, the Schauers filed an action to void the annexation and to claim a violation of Nebraska’s Open Meetings Act. Summary judgment for the City was granted, and the Schauers appealed.
The Nebraska Supreme Court first investigated whether the Schauers had standing to challenge the annexation. The Court reviewed previous caselaw on the rights of landowners to challenge municipal annexations. “This Court has never held that a neighboring landowner, who neither owns a property interest in the annexed territory nor will be subjected to new zoning regulations as a result of annexation has standing to challenge the annexation of someone else’s land….” Further, the Court noted that standing has never been conferred in an annexation challenge “simply because of proximity.” The Court concluded that the Schauers did not have standing to challenge the annexation.
The Court did find the Schauers, as citizens of Valley County, had standing to bring a claim for violation of the Open Meetings Act. The Schaurs first argued that because the City described Redevelopment Area #3 as “within the City” in various documents prior to annexation of the land it was misleading to the public. The Court disagreed, finding the contents of the notice reasonable. The notices described the exact location of the property and included a map of the vicinity.
Next, the Schauers contended that the minutes of the city council meetings failed to identify an established method of notice, which they claim violated the Open Meeting Act. The Court also dismissed this claim. It had been the long standing history to post agendas at the township library, the County courthouse, and city hall, as well as being made available at the city clerk’s office. The Open Meetings Act simply requires the public body to choose a method of notice, and that the method chosen be recorded in the minutes. In this case, the city clerk was able to establish through testimony that a consistent method of notification had been utilized.
The Schauers finally alleged that the tour and dinner on June 1, 2005 constituted a meeting, that public notice of the meeting was not provided, and it therefore violated the Open Meetings Act. The Court again disagreed. Under §84-1410 of the Open Meetings Act no informal meetings can be used for the purpose of circumventing meeting requirements. This however, does not apply to any chance meetings, or travel of members of the public body where no action is taken on matters they supervise. The Court found that no policy decisions were made or discussed during the tour and dinner. The separation of city council members into smaller groups was not done to circumvent the Open Meetings Act; rather, the small groups were acquiring information that was later commented on by the public in an officially-recognized meeting of the council. The Court stated that the Open Meetings Act, “does not require policymakers to remain ignorant of the issues they must decide until the moment the public is invited to comment on a proposed policy.” One purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to balance the public’s right to be heard and the public’s “need for information to conduct business.”
The Court then observed that there were never more than two city council members together at the same time during the evening. The Court noted that the presence of the mayor was immaterial, as the mayor is not a member of the city council. “The fact that a statute gives a certain official the right to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie…does not, of itself, make that official a member of that body for the purposes of ascertaining a quorum or majority….”
The decision of the district court was affirmed.