Foster Swift Municipal Law News
The Michigan Court of Appeals recently struck down an attempt by voters to dissolve by local election a township parks commission that township voters previously created. Risk v Lincoln Charter Twp Bd of Trustees, ___ Mich App ___ (Docket No. 275129, decided 6/216/08). In Risk, township electors established a park commission in 1972 under state law. The electors then became disillusioned with the park commission they created and, in 2006, filed a petition to dissolve the commission and transfer control of the township’s parks to the township board. The township board received the petition, and voted to put the question in dissolving the commission on the November 2006 general election.
The plaintiffs believed the proposed ballot question was invalid and asked the Attorney General to stop the election. The Attorney General chose not to. The plaintiffs then sought relief in circuit court, claiming the proposed ballot question was an improper recall effort that violated Michigan law. While the ensuing circuit court proceedings unfolded, the election was held and the results came in: the township electors voted to dissolve the township park commission. The circuit court later validated the local election.
The Michigan Court of Appeals – in a published decision – reversed, and held that once the park commission was established, it may not be dissolved. The Township Parks Act addresses how to create a township park commission, but does not address how to dissolve one. Nor does any other law address how to dissolve a township park commission. In contrast, several other statutes expressly provide for both establishing and dissolving various commissions, boards, and programs by electors of a governmental unit. The Court, in line with a 1999 Attorney General opinion on the subject, therefore concluded that a voter-established township park commission may not be dissolved by resolution of the township board or by vote of the electors. Because the vote to dissolve was improper, the vote did not recall the individual township park commissioners.
The decision in Risk highlights a few important matters. First, Risk is yet another reminder that municipalities are bound by the statutory language governing them – and that courts construe that per the plain language used. Second, Risk shows the potential challenges municipalities face when receiving a petition. In some situations, acting pursuant to that petition is appropriate. But in others – such as the Risk scenario – taking actions pursuant to the petition was inappropriate. Foster Swift’s municipal team has many years of experience guiding municipalities through questions of whether authority exists to take certain actions, and in responding to various petitions. If your municipality would like assistance on those issues, we are happy to help.