MONROE - Bedford Township residents upset with a proposed mobile home park have raised ethical questions about a judge's decision to dismiss their lawsuit against the township last month.
An attorney representing residents of the Mohawk Trails subdivision in Temperance yesterday filed separate motions for reconsideration of the Oct. 11 dismissal and seeking disqualification of Circuit Court Judge William LaVoy after the judge and his wife showed up on campaign finance reports for Bedford Township Trustee Medford Barr.
According to the campaign finance reports, Judge LaVoy and his wife, Carolyn, contributed $30 to Mr. Barr's re-election bid during a campaign fund-raiser Sept. 30.
Less than two weeks later, Judge LaVoy threw out the residents' lawsuit, saying it “was not appropriate” because the original 1993 case it involved was still active in a Lenawee County court.
In his motion, Les Nearpass, one of two attorneys representing the five residents of Mohawk Trails, alleged that the judge's contribution “constitutes a bias in favor” of Mr. Barr, and therefore, of the township in the case. “I think [this is] something my clients had a right to know,” Mr. Nearpass said yesterday.
Judge LaVoy was in trial yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
His judicial secretary said the judge and his wife purchased two tickets to Mr. Barr's fund-raiser in September but did not attend.
Linda Barr, Mr. Barr's wife and campaign manager, confirmed that Judge and Mrs. LaVoy did not attend the fund-raiser at the Samaria Community Center, but submitted a $30 check for two tickets to the event, which she listed on the campaign finance report.
Tom Byerly, who handles ethical questions for attorneys and judges with the State Bar of Michigan, said the fact that Judge LaVoy made a nominal contribution before ruling on the case does not necessarily warrant reversal of his decision.
“If the judge was not impartial, the judge cannot hear the case - but the judge gets to make [his] own decision of whether [he is] impartial,” Mr. Byerly said. “Exercising [his] right to make a political contribution does not, in itself, mean the judge was not impartial.”
Mr. Byerly said Michigan's Code of Judicial Conduct does not address the specifics of the incident.
The original 1993 case, brought against the township by Germano Management, Inc., a mobile home park developer based in Livonia, Mich., against Bedford Township was settled in 1995 and the settlement sealed.
A portion of the sealed settlement gave Germano five years in which to identify a future site in the southeast quadrant of the township upon which it could apply to build another mobile home park, in addition to the Inverness and Inverness Too parks it operates in the township.
In June, two days before the settlement was to expire, Germano notified the township that it had identified 46.6 acres along West Dean Road near the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks as the land it intended to develop into another mobile home park.
The township board, under political pressure from residents in the area, filed an objection to the Germano selection of the West Dean site, and took the issue back before Lenawee County Circuit Court Judge Harvey Koselka, where it remains.
Judge LaVoy ruled that because the original case was still active - a hearing on the township's objection hasn't been scheduled - Mohawk Trails residents would have to take their redress to Adrian.
“It appears that this is a live case for the reason that the  judgment was modified [this year] and pleadings have been filed as recently as Sept. 15 by various parties to the original case,” Judge LaVoy wrote.
“This matter then, which involves Bedford Township ... excludes the original plaintiffs [Germano Management] who have a right to be heard if someone is asking that the judgment be set aside because of alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act, and the other matters indicated in the plaintiff's complaint should be the vehicle for attacking matters relating to that judgment.”
The residents' lawsuit claimed that portions of the consent judgment signed June 28, 1995, violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act, and that the township board itself violated the open meetings act when it agreed to the settlement five years ago.
The suit also claimed the board continued to violate the open meetings act beginning in July when the township received notice from Germano that the company had purchased an option on 46.6 acres that it intended to develop under terms of the original settlement.
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