The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday against Tar Creek residents who claimed their property was undervalued by the trust involved in the federal relocation plan, but eight of the nine justices agreed the trust violated the state's Open Meeting Act by inviting appraisers and the state's secretary of environment into a closed meeting. The high court sent the open meeting matter back to Ottawa County District Court for the judge to decide whether the violation was willful and whether residents should be allowed to see records of the executive session of the Lead-Impacted Communities Relocation Assistance Trust. Larry Roberts, trust operations manager, declined to comment Tuesday on the ruling. Johnny and Patty LaFalier and Missy Beets sought class status for residents whose buyout payments were reduced because they were paid by their private insurance carrier or the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a 2008 tornado. They claimed they had signed a contract for the purchase of their property; their property was damaged by the tornado, and the insurance payment they received on the property was deducted from the relocation assistance offer. They also said the Open Meeting Act was violated when company officials went into executive session with the trust to discuss appraisals. J.D. Strong, state environment secretary, was also there. The district court judge ruled against them, and they appealed.
Payments called OKThe justices all found that the trust's decision about payments was constitutional. But they voted 8-1 that the trust violated the Open Meeting Act. The high court sent the matter back to the district judge to determine whether the meeting violation was willful and whether the minutes and records of the executive session should be made public. The judge also could decide whether the violation was criminal in nature, which could result in a misdemeanor count and a fine or jail time. Justice James Winchester disagreed with the open meeting violation saying it puts the trust in "an impossible position.” Previous Supreme Court opinions allowed the trust to rely on attorney general opinions, he wrote. An earlier attorney general opinion said it was up to the public body's members to determine who may be allowed into an executive session, Winchester said. Strong, as secretary of the environment, has oversight over the trust and the trust had contracted with the appraisal companies to give them advice, he wrote. Strong said Tuesday he was still reviewing the court ruling, but that he followed the attorney general's opinion on who could attend executive sessions.