That sums up what we can expect from the Grand Rapids City Attorney's office as it embarks upon another fool's errand. Here are a few L.A.W. highlights of the City Attorney's past hijinks.
THE VELVET TOUCH FIASCO (first posted on April 14, 2005)
On Tuesday the Grand Rapids City Commission meekly acquiesced to a federal court order requiring the City to reimburse the Velvet Touch adult bookstore $125,000 for the attorney fees it incurred to stop the City Attorney's office from shutting it down. Assistant City Attorneys Daniel Ophoff and Catherine Mish also racked up a similar sum in legal costs, including the retention of a private attorney out of Tennessee to help them. Therefore, the Velvet Touch fiasco cost taxpayers a quarter-million dollars without a single benefit to be gained.
And a fiasco it was. None of this would have happened had the City Commission been on the ball and modernized the zoning ordinance regulating adult businesses or had City officials not reneged on its original finding that the Velvet Touch complied with the existing ordinance.
Back in August 2000 the Velvet Touch looked into moving its store to its present location on 28th Street in Grand Rapids. The City zoning ordinance would not permit the Velvet Touch to locate there without a variance if it fell under the definition of an adult business. Under the ordinance at the time, which had been drafted in the '70s, if 5% of a retailer's stock were sexually explicit printed materials, then it was deemed an adult business. As it happened, only 3% of the Velvet Touch's stock constituted the offending materials. Much of the remainder consisted of pornographic videos and sex toys, which the archaic ordinance did not address. So interpreting the ordinance by its plain language, the City board of zoning appeals ruled that the Velvet Touch did not need a variance and could operate at its new location.
An owner of property adjacent to the Velvet Touch challenged the City's decision in Kent County Circuit Court. Then the Grand Rapids City Commission revised the ordinance restricting the permissible locations of adult businesses. The commissioners drafted the revision in such a way that there existed almost no place within the city limits where the Velvet Touch would be allowed to operate. Indeed, they targeted the new ordinance at the Velvet Touch. When City officials then tried to retroactively apply the new ordinance to the Velvet Touch to shut it down, the Velvet Touch sought protection from the U.S. District Court.
In stepped Ophoff and Mish and everyone's legal bills began to escalate. The U.S. District Court invalidated the City's new adult business ordinance as unconstitutionally restrictive of businesses engaged in the sale of legal goods. Ophoff and Mish appealed the decision to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio. They hired an appellate attorney named Scott Bergthold out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, to handled the appeal. Again the City lost.
So, the Velvet Touch continues to operate at its new location and the taxpayers are now on the hook for a quarter-million dollars for this fool's errand. Had the City Commission been competent enough to draft a modern and constitutionally valid zoning ordinance, or had City officials simply honored their original decision, or had the City Attorney's office had the wits to advise the City Commission they were fighting a losing battle -- none of this would have happened. Be assured, however, that only you, the taxpayer, will be paying for this fiasco.
RIVER RAT OPHOFF SHREDS DOCUMENTS (first published on May 9, 2002)
This is outrageous. Today Assistant City Attorney Daniel Ophoff told LAW’s attorney Peter Steketee that the City Attorney’s Office has destroyed the public records that LAW has asked the local court to disclose to it and the public under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Instead of turning these public records over to the court so that a circuit court judge can review them to decide whether to disclose them to the public, Ophoff had them destroyed.
These public records were minutes of closed sessions of the Grand Rapids City Commission held on March 6, 2001, and May 8, 2001, in which Mayor Logie and City Commissioners made decisions to NOT investigate the dumping of hazardous waste at the old Grand Rapids Water Filtration Plant located on Monroe Avenue, just north of Leonard Street. Because these decisions were made in secret instead of in an open meeting, where Boss Logie and the Empty Suits would have been accountable to the public and the media, it looked like those closed meetings were conducted in violation of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
Because I was twice tipped off by Commissar – ahem – I mean, Commissioner Jendrasiak (you know him, the self-proclaimed champion of the workingman who keeps his blue collar neatly tucked beneath his pinstripes) as to what transpired in those closed sessions, last June I, as your executive director, sent Boss Logie a FOIA request for those closed session minutes and other public records concerning the dumping of hazardous waste at the old filtration plant. After jerking me around for several weeks, City Manager Kurt Kimball finally refused to publicly disclose the minutes.
Consequently Peter Steketee filed a FOIA action in the Kent County Circuit Court (Local Area Watch v City of Grand Rapids, Case No. 02-00218-CZ) in January of this year to compel disclosure of the closed session minutes and other public records the City was withholding. LAW then made a discovery request of the City for those minutes and gave the City until the end of February to comply. When the deadline for producing the minutes came up, Ophoff asked Steketee for several extensions of the deadline because he needed the extra time to answer our discovery request.
Now we know that Ophoff was lying to Steketee. Instead of using the extra time we had given him in good faith to produce the closed session minutes, he used that time to destroy the documents. So much for FOIA and the Open Meetings Act, the tools that the State legislature created a quarter-century ago for mere citizens like us to keep on an eye on our government if stooges like Ophoff can make toast of embarrassing records to prevent their public disclosure. If he and the City gets away with this, we’re just one step away from the Ministry of Truth here in ol’ River City.
Well, we’ll see. Steketee is teeing up an injunction request to stop Ophoff and the City from destroying any further evidence of what happened in those closed sessions. Keep your fingers and we’ll keep you informed.
TORMALA DENOUNCES GUTLESSNESS OF CITY ATTORNEYS (first published on March 1, 2005)
Last Tuesday City Commissioner Rick Tormala used his position on the Fiscal Committee to block a $7,500 settlement that Assistant City Attorney Margaret Bloemers had negotiated to resolve a personal injury claim brought by a Kentwood man arrested by the Grand Rapids police a few years ago. The man, Raymond Gallagher, complained the police hurt his wrists when they handcuffed him. However, there is no dispute that the police acted properly or that Gallagher was permanently injured.
Tormala is right to take the City's attorneys to task for their gutlessness in settling cases that have little going for them other than a feared (and not necessarily real) emotional appeal to a jury. After all, it's the taxpayers' money being thrown down the drain when City attorneys run away from a jury when the law is on the City's side.
Then again, why is Tormala silent when a City attorney makes common cause with malefactors, such at the Toxic Towers polluters, in a personal vendetta, destroying incriminating public records, filing false statements with courts, racking up big costs for the City, and leaving the taxpayers exposed to potentially billions of dollars in fines once a jury sees videotape evidence of the very acts the City Attorney's office is denying happened?
Why the silence about such folly? Oh, that's right. Because the City Attorney's Office ordered Tormala and his fellow commissioners to say nothing.* So who's really working for whom at City Hall?
* Both Mayor Heartwell and Commissioner Tormala informed me last year that all of the elected officials in the City government were prohibited from discussing the Toxic Towers case upon the orders of the City Attorney's office.