Judge rules plaintiffs in Mt. Pleasant case don’t have standing to sue
By James Tilson
MANTI—Most complaints in a civil suit filed by a former mayor and former city employees against the city of Mt. Pleasant were dismissed last Wednesday in 6th District Court, with the judge saying the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to file the case.
Judge Wallace Lee heard oral arguments in the case of David Blackham and others vs. Mt. Pleasant City. Other parties to the suit were Jane Banks, former city recorder, and Sam Day, former public works director. Former Mayor Sandra Bigler dropped out of the suit a couple of months ago.
Heather White of Salt Lake City represented Mt. Pleasant City in a motion to dismiss the suit. She argued the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue the city under the theory of “public interest standing” because all of the plaintiffs had resigned their positions and no longer worked for the city. She also argued the issues raised by the plaintiffs could be addressed through the political process.
Judge Lee agreed with the city’s argument, and dismissed all but one count of the plaintiffs’ suit against the city.
“I think it was a good day,” said Mt. Pleasant Councilman Kevin Stallings, describing his reaction to the judge’s ruling. “[The council] is looking forward to focusing on the big things we’ve got going.”
Stallings expressed hope the ruling would end the drama that has swirled around city government in recent months.
“I appreciated the judge giving his appreciation for both attorneys, and I’m impressed with the court system and how it gives both sides the opportunity to state their case. But the quicker this can be put to rest, the better everyone will be. We have work to do, and I’m anxious to get back to it.”
However, Blackham felt the ruling did not protect the people of Mt. Pleasant from potential wrong-doing by their elected officials. “The judge’s decision ruled that citizens cannot sue [their elected officials]. I think it is a loss and a tragedy to our democratic process to give elected officials that much power.”
But Blackham still saw some good in parts of the judge’s ruling. “I was pleased the judge castigated the city for not using an attorney (during its meetings to advise on its actions).”
In their original complaint, the plaintiffs asserted that even though they did not meet the “traditional” definition of standing to sue (i.e. suffering some “distinct and palpable injury”), they did have “public interest standing.”
“Public interest standing” requires a plaintiff to be an “appropriate party” and the issue of the suit must be of “sufficient public importance” that it could not otherwise be addressed by the usual political process of election or legislation.
White argued the plaintiffs were not “appropriate parties” because they had resigned their positions and were no longer working for the city. “The plaintiffs are now merely members of the public at large.”
White argued if the issues alleged by the plaintiffs were as egregious as claimed, the plaintiffs should have brought an action while they were still working at the city. Now, as ordinary citizens, they have the same remedy as all other citizens.
“If the citizens of the community are upset by the council’s actions, they should vote them out.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Steven Tycksen of Draper, tried to tell the judge, “What we’re trying to do is a course correction within the city government. (to check) a council that has run amuck with the state laws.”
Tycksen countered White’s argument, saying the plaintiffs were acting on behalf of the city at large, and the issues at stake could not be resolved through the usual process. “These are not just political issues. The council will not solve the issue themselves.”
Commending all of the parties for their sense of service to Mt. Pleasant, Judge Lee said, “Some of the best people in the world live in small towns.”
In ruling in favor of the city, the judge found the plaintiffs did not have traditional standing, nor did they qualify for public interest standing.
Judge Lee did allow Blackham to proceed personally on one of his claims, regarding his request for public documents under the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA).
Lee ruled Blackham may be able to seek attorney fees for his efforts in seeking records of certain closed meetings of the city council, but only from a time dating from his filing of an amended complaint until the city eventually turned over the requested records.