Local Republicans are celebrating a court ruling in a case over the legality of a 2020 Republican appointment Democrat Mayor John Hamilton made to the city plan commission.
A nine-page decision issued Nov. 18 by Greene Circuit Judge Erik Allen says the Bloomington mayor's appointment of Christopher Cockerham was improper.
It says the seat instead should be held by Andrew Guenther, appointed by Republican Party Chairman William Ellis after the seat was empty more than three months.
"Andrew Guenther is immediately entitled to the appointed seat on the Bloomington Plan Commission," the ruling concludes. "Christopher Cockerham is hereby ordered to vacate and relinquish his improperly appointed seat upon receipt of this writ."
The mayor makes five appointments to the 10-member city plan commission; by statute, no more than three can be from the same political party.
One issue in the case was whether Cockerham, a local real estate agent, qualified as a true Republican when Hamilton appointed him to the seat on May 7, 2020, three weeks after Ellis appointed Guenther. Hamilton's appointment also came two days before the primary election and 100 days after former plan commission member Nicholas Kappas's four-year term had ended.
Another point of contention was whether Ellis or Hamilton had the greater authority to make the appointment once a 60-day legal deadline to replace a member had passed. The seat vacated by Kappas remained empty from Jan. 6 through April 16, 2020.
Indiana law states that if a seat on a city commission such as this stays empty longer than 60 days, the head of the political party the appointee is required to be affiliated with can make the appointment.
That's what Ellis did. He appointed Guenther to the Republican seat on April 16, 2020. In June, the city rejected that appointment and approved Hamilton's choice, Cockerham, instead.
Ellis and Guenther then sued Hamilton, the city of Bloomington, Cockerham and Kappas after city officials refused to accept Guenther and appointed Cockerham to the seat.
Cockerham had voted as a Democrat as recently as the 2019 primary. But in the spring of 2020, he requested a Republican primary ballot from the voter registration office, according to court records, switching his political allegiance.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic delayed 2020 primary Election Day voting in Monroe County from May 5 to June 2, Cockerham still was a Democrat under Indiana law at the time of his plan commission appointment, the judge ruled, making him ineligible.
"Guenther is the rightful appointed member of the plan commission," and, under state law, "Chairman Ellis had the authority to make an appointment for the vacant seat since Mayor Hamilton had not done so," Judge Allen's ruling states.
This past April, an appeals court panel voted in support of Allen's decision to deny the city's request to dismiss the case.
City Attorney Mike Rouker said Tuesday afternoon that the city doesn't comment on pending legal matters.
It looks as if the Bloomington officials will appeal the decision to a higher court. Tuesday afternoon, city attorneys filed a motion asking that no action be taken on Allen's order "pending appeal," according to the case docket.
In the meantime, Ellis and others are happy the judge decided in Guenther's favor.
The ruling "proves that no one, not even Mayor Hamilton, is above the laws of our land," Ellis said in a statement.
Contact reporter Laura Lane at email@example.com, 812-331-4362 or 812-318-5967
This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Judge: Mayor improperly filled vacant plan commission seat