Lawsuit: Madison Twp trustees met illegally, asked official to help cover it up
MADISON TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WXIX) - Elected leaders in this Butler County suburb are accused of illegally deciding public business privately and then trying to cover it up, court records show.
The owner of Land of Illusion Adventure Park sued Madison Township and two trustees earlier this year, alleging they violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act as they conferred and decided their stance about his $190 million proposed expansion.
The suit, filed by Brett Oakley, names Trustees Alan Daniel and Brian McGuire.
A third trustee at the time, Thomas Hall, is accused in the lawsuit of participating in one of the illegal meetings and cover-up attempt, but Hall is not named as one of the defendants.
Shortly after the incident occurred, Hall, 25, was elected state representative for the 53rd district, which includes Monroe, Trenton, Seven Mile, Madison, Oxford and part of Middletown in Butler County. Jeff Willoughby was appointed to his seat.
According to the lawsuit, Hall, Daniel and McGuire privately met, conferred, discussed and came up with the statement in the letter to zoning commission at least once - and possibly on multiple occasions.
It’s unclear if they physically met or just conferred virtually, but it’s obvious they got together and colluded, the lawsuit contends.
The three elected officials privately considered, as a group, and developed the township’s position on the expansion project and came up with a group statement for a letter to the Butler County Rural Zoning Commission ahead of that board’s vote on Land of Illusion’s expansion proposal at their June 15, 2020 meeting.
The township trustees’ actions were in violation of the Open Meetings Act because proper notice was not provided to the public “and the public was excluded from such meetings,” the lawsuit states.
The suit alleges the three trustees “knew and appreciated their actions and conduct in developing and agreeing upon the letter directed to the Butler County Rural Zoning Commission violated the Open Meetings Act.”
A copy of the letter, attached to the lawsuit, shows trustees asked the zoning commission to deny the zone change Oakley needed to expand Land of Illusion due to concerns over traffic and noise.
After all three trustees developed and agreed about the letter to send to the zoning commission, Trustee McGuire transmitted it in a June 14 email “Untitled Document” to the Madison Township Administrator Todd Farler, the suit states.
A copy of the email is included in the lawsuit, along with the township administrator’s response:
Attached is a letter written to the Rural Zoning board, concerning changes to the Land of Illusion zoning. Although all are in agreement Mr. Hall would like you to write the letter in your words. He is concerned with the public questioning a letter approved by the trustees without benefit of a meeting. You may contact Mr. Hall to discuss. Sorry for the late notice. This will need to be read at the zoning board meeting Monday at 6 p.m.
The lawsuit notes all three township trustees “specifically recognized that their approval of the letter occurred without a meeting of the township trustees and, thus, sought to hide and deceive the general public about the illegality surrounding how the letter came to fruition.
“Instead of following and participating in the scheme to deceive the public concerning the illegality surrounding how the letter came to fruition, the Township Administrator rejected such a proposal in the following e-mail response to the three trustees,” the lawsuit states.
Brian, Alan, Thomas,
“There is no way that I can stand before anyone and read such a statement on behalf of this Board, without the Board having publicly met and discussed this issue. Everything in the letter, even if I rewrite it, not only shows but proves that the Board had had recent discussions on this issue in great detail, traffic studies, road maintenance, new zoning change, impact studies, etc.
“You are asking me to jeopardize my character and possibly have a negative impact on my career by knowingly performing a task that would be unethical and illegal, and which I expect would become very public if it came to fruition. You are also opening a floodgate for anyone (public or attorney) to start questioning the Board about your discussions and start requesting public records from all three trustees.
“Without being able to show any discussions in recent past meetings, it is obviously clear that the Board has been privately discussing it. This would be a perfect case study for Sunshine Law violations: “A recent township event or issue arises and the Board (or spokesperson for the Board) issues a public statement without there ever being ANY record of the Board discussing the recent issue.” No agenda, no agenda comments, no recorded minutes of ANY discussion pertaining to the issue.
“This sounds like a case study they would cover in one of the classes at the OTA (Ohio Township Association) conference,
“The best scenario and what would carry the most weight at this point, would be for each of the Trustees to attend the meeting, and individually speak from their own account.”
Instead of following “the sound advice” from the township administrator, two of the trustees - Daniel and McGuire - “continued their scheme to deceive the public concerning the illegality surrounding how the letter came to fruition by calling or arranging an ‘emergency meeting’ of the Madison Township Board of Township Trustees for June 15, 2020,” the lawsuit states.
“This ‘emergency meeting’ ...arose only after the Township Administrator rejected earlier that same day the effort by the township trustees to have him participate in the deception to the public about the illegal meeting of the township trustees,” the suit continues, alleging that the emergency meeting also violated Ohio law.
Farler is no longer the township administrator.
The lawsuit asks the court to:
- Issue a declaratory judgment that the trustees violated the Ohio Open Meetings Act twice
- Declare invalid any and all resolutions, rules or formal actions that resulted from the illegal meetings
- Issue an injunction against the trustees, and their successors in office, from excluding the public from public meetings without complying with the law, particularly as it relates to considering or discussing any public township business.
The suit also seeks a $500 fine for each violation of the Open Meetings Act, as well as court costs and attorney fees.
The lawsuit is currently before Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Keith Spaeth with a bench trial date set for Feb. 7, 2022.
Daniel and McGuire both declined comment for this story.
McGuire referred us to the township’s attorney, who is out of the office until Thursday, according to her office. We left a message and will update this story if we hear back.
In a statement to FOX19 NOW, Hall said: “It’s clear from the court documents that I did not attend the meeting at issue. It’s also clear that I am not a named defendant. Frankly, it’s not my issue to comment on.
“I can’t control what others believe, but I can always control what I do. And that is to fight for government transparency,” Hall’s statement continues.
“If it’s helpful to verify, I am sending you the document of the meeting minutes of the June 15th special meeting (from Madison Township website). In paragraph 2 I am mentioned and it is clear that I was absent from the meeting. At the end of the letter in the meeting minutes, it is also clear that my name is not attached.”
The lawsuit was filed in February by attorneys Chris Finney and Curt Hartman, who declined comment.
Finney was one of the attorneys whose lawsuit over Cincinnati City Council’s “Gang of Five” led to five council members admitting they violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act by privately deciding public business via text messages and emails.
Another attorney in their law firm, Rebecca Heimlich, referred comment to Michael McNight at Land of Illusion.
“Thank you for you contacting Land of Illusion regarding a legal matter that is the subject of current litigation. On the advice of counsel, we will not be making any public comments at this time. Thank you again for contacting us,” McNight wrote us in an email.
This is one of three lawsuits Land of Illusion Adventure Park’s owner filed in the past year against Madison Township and its trustees.
Butler County Commissioners and Madison Township Trustees recently agreed to enter mediation with Oakley to try to resolve his legal action against them over his rejected $190 million expansion plan.
In December 2020, Oakley and affiliated companies L.O.I. Property, LLC of Carlisle and B.A.O. Productions, LLC of Middletown filed a federal lawsuit against the county, township, township trustees, county commissioners and the county planning administrator.
The suit accuses county officials of being “arbitrary and capricious” in their decision-making process and ultimate denial for the zoning change he needed to expand.
It seeks a declaratory judgment, compensatory and punitive damages and legal fees.
Madison Township also has agreed to go into mediation to try to work out a separate, second federal lawsuit with Oakley and companies over the township’s noise ordinance, court records show.
Oakley, B.A.O. Productions LLC and Ohio Event Services, LLC sued the township and its board of trustees earlier this year, alleging the ordinance was unconstitutional.
Land of Illusion is now the scene of an investigation by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office. A 14-year-old park guest died shortly after she was pulled from the water Tuesday, July 20.
More | Land of Illusion possible drowning
See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Please include the title when you click here to report it.
Copyright 2021 WXIX. All rights reserved.