Hope Town Council cancels closed session after Open Door Law challenge

HOPE – A closed-door meeting of the Hope Town Council scheduled for Tuesday to address disannexation petitions has been canceled.

The executive session was scheduled immediately after Tuesday’s two-and-a-half hour public hearing on petitions submitted by Dr. John and Barbara Harker, as well as David and Kelly Ellis. Both couples claim they are forced to pay higher municipal taxes and stormwater assessment fees to the town, but receive little to no benefit.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, council president Ohmer Miller made a motion to schedule a closed session “to hash this all out,” he said.

After his motion was unanimously approved, Miller repeated himself by saying things would be hashed out in executive session for the good of the petitioners and the community.

Special town attorney Alex Whitted advised Miller the council can consider litigation implications during an executive session, but cannot vote on the merits of the petitions until a second public hearing is held.

“I’d rather have it that, once we have our findings, we bring it into a council meeting,” Miller said.

Whitted responded that those findings will have to be openly developed during a public hearing.

On Wednesday, Whitted received a formal open door law request from The Republic. Whitted was asked to provide a copy of documents that threaten litigation specifically against the Hope Town Council or the town in regards to the planned executive session.

According to Indiana’s Open Door Law, an executive session is permitted for initiation of litigation or litigation that is either pending or has been threatened specifically in writing.

In the request, the newspaper stated it was seeking information as to whether the executive session was an initiation of litigation, or what litigation is pending or has been threatened specifically in writing.

On Thursday, The Republic received the following emailed message from Whitted:

“Upon further review, the Hope Town Council will not hold an executive session prior to the public hearing on March 6, 2024.”

The Harkers are specifically asking to deannex 33.78 acres of undeveloped pasture land located south, east and northeast of where Jackson Street becomes East Jackson Road. The 1.18 acre Ellis property, located at 15241 E. Jackson Road, is nearly surrounded by Harker’s property.

John Harker says he has paid $20,737 in stormwater assessment fees since 2011, while other agricultural land owners within the town limits only pay $36 per parcel annually. David Ellis says that if his petition is approved, his stormwater assessment fees would only be reduced by a small amount, but a subsequent drop in assessment would significantly lower his property taxes paid to the county.

The second public hearing on the petitions is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6.