Judge dismisses open door challenge against Westfield

March 11, 2015

A Hamilton County Circuit Court judge dismissed an open-door challenge against the city of Westfield on Wednesday morning.

The complaint, which was filed by Republican mayoral challenger Jeff Harpe, argued that Westfield officials violated Indiana’s Open Door Law during the process of approving plans to build an indoor soccer facility at Grand Park sports campus.

Judge Paul Felix said state law is intended to prevent citizens from filing challenges based on possible open-door violations as a last-minute stall tactic, which is why it requires a complaint to be filed within 30 days of the alleged violation.

The Westfield City Council approved the plans for the $25 million, 371,000-square-foot soccer facility at its Oct. 27 meeting, which Harpe attended and spoke at. However, his complaint wasn’t filed until Dec. 9.

“The complaint was filed outside of the 30-day window required by law,” Felix said as he dismissed the case.

However, most of the hearing centered on whether the council’s finance committee could actually be considered a “committee.” Harpe alleged the group met privately to discuss the details of the lease for the indoor arena.

Council member Jim Ake, who was president of the governing body at the time, testified that he spoke to other council members about the deal and met with developers from Holladay Properties twice, but the meetings were for informational purposes.

Private developer Holladay Properties will finance and build the indoor facility with a $25 million loan that the city would pay back over 25 years. With interest added, the total cost could be near $53 million.

Ake said there was a small group that met with several members of city staff to discuss the ordinance that outlined the arrangement, but he wouldn’t consider it a “committee.”

Council member Cindy Spoljaric, who was the only dissenting vote in October, also said she wouldn’t consider it a “committee,” but that’s what the city staff calls it.

Under the agreement, Holladay will lease the arena to the city, which will then sublease it to other tenants. Two 10-year contracts were signed with Indiana Sports Properties and Jonathan Byrd’s restaurant. The payments from those subleases will cover the city’s lease obligations and generate a $250,000 surplus.

Harpe’s attorney Tim Stoesz also tried to question Indiana’s Public Access Counselor Luke Britt about whether the situation violated the Open Door Law, but Britt was prevented from forming an opinion about the case specifically.

Britt was allowed to speak generally about his recommendations to government agencies. When in doubt, he said, consider any gathering of elected officials an open meeting.

The city has pushed for the indoor addition to Grand Park so it can become a year-round attraction for sporting events and bring an even bigger economic impact to Westfield and the rest of the county. Hotel occupancy has already increased in the area since the 400-acre sports venue opened last year.

Grand Park is already home to 26 baseball and softball diamonds, 31 soccer fields and 10 miles of trails.

With the challenge dismissed, Westfield spokeswoman Erin Murphy confirmed that plans can move forward for the facility based on the Oct. 27 vote.


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