HARRISBURG, Neb. Banner County commissioners violated the state’s open-meetings law several times in 2005, a judge ruled as she vacated tax-valuation rulings that could turn back the clock and lower the bills of some landowners.
Judge Kristine Cecava issued the ruling April 5 against Commissioners Gary Grubbs, Milo Sandberg and Robert Gifford Jr. Seventeen residents of the Panhandle county, population 733, sued in August 2005, accusing the three commissioners of violating the laws several times from Jan. 6 to July 22, 2005.
The judge said the commissioners, acting as the Board of Equalization, did not properly post or print proper notice of meetings or set notice policy. The commission printed combined notices of the Banner County Board of Commissioners and its Board of Equalization which is constituted by the commissioners but accurate times or special notice of the equalization board meetings were not published or posted.
Although the commission agenda listed the Board of Equalization as an agenda item, the judge said, “a person would have to attend every (commission) meeting in order to find out if the [equalization board] was meeting.”
“This is not only not reasonable but is absurd,” the judge said.
Cecava voided all Board of Equalization meetings between January and August 2005, including any actions taken during those meetings.
According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Robert Brenner, that means all property tax valuations protested then would have to be reset to 2004 figures.
“(The commissioners) will have to roll back those increases, as I see it,” Brenner said. “They didn’t give those people a legal hearing, and a refund would be in order,” he said.
Cecava also said three commissioners meetings in July 2005 were not properly posted.
She said some of the violations of the state open-meetings law resulted in lack of public openness.
“In a community such as Banner County, posted notice has more importance than in a more populated area,” she said. “Banner County has no radio station. ... There are no newspapers published in Banner County. ... Of course, there is no television station in Banner County. There is no incorporated town of any kind in Banner County. Posting is an essential method of notifying Banner County residents of meetings.”
Banner County Attorney James Zimmerman said he would recommend that the commissioners appeal Cecava’s decision.
No county in Nebraska prints separate notices, agendas or minutes for county board meetings and equalization boards, he said.
He called Cecava’s decision “a shotgun approach” that shouldn’t apply to each incarnation of the county commission.
Printing or posting its Board of Equalization and Board of Commissioners meeting notices separately would cost the county money the county can’t spare, he said.
“I believe that the ruling is wrong,” Zimmerman said. “I believe that if it were to stand, it would change the way all counties and municipalities do business in the state of Nebraska.”
Zimmerman said there were a couple of inadvertent and relatively inconsequential violations, including failing to print a few notices or minutes. But he characterized the violations as mere mistakes made by a busy county clerk who has several different and demanding responsibilities.
Lawsuits aren’t the right way to change the commissioners’ practices or policies, Zimmerman said. Instead, he said, complaints should be directed to him or other officials.
“The county has spent thousands of dollars defending itself in a lawsuit that they could be using ... to provide services,” he said.