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Judge postpones the annexation trial hearing, citing a conflict of interest

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Bloomington, Indiana – A hearing in a challenge the city filed over two years ago was postponed when the judge presiding over Bloomington’s annexation hearing withdrew from the case due to a conflict of interest.

Special Judge Kelsey Hanlon of the Monroe Circuit Court ruled to recuse herself from the case and postponed the hearing, which was originally set for Thursday at 11 a.m. in the Monroe County courthouse.

Hanlon claimed that her husband, Justin Roddye, had an “unwaivable conflict of interest” due to a change in work in an email addressed to the lawyers involved in the case. Roddye just took a job in the legal department of Monroe County, which offers legal assistance to county government offices including the auditor’s office.

Cities can expand their municipal borders through annexation to grow in area and population. The hearing on Thursday has been rescheduled to discuss Bloomington’s most recent attempt at annexation, which started in 2017 but has run into resistance from locals.

In 2017, Bloomington began the process of annexing seven regions; however, through the state budget bill of that year, the annexation was put on hold. After the city filed a legal challenge to this suspension, the Indiana Supreme Court declared in 2020 that the state legislature had unfairly singled out Bloomington for violation of the state constitution.

In March 2022, the city sued former Monroe County Auditor Catherine Smith, claiming that Smith had counted remonstrance petitions—petitions signed by citizens of Monroe County opposing annexation efforts—as illegitimate.

Smith is still named as the defendant even though she resigned from her role as auditor on January 20 to take on the role of Monroe County Treasurer.

A petition to nullify annexation was signed by 65% of the population in five of the seven planned annexation zones. The city claims in the complaint that these annexation attempts are unconstitutional because of a state statute that went into force in 2019 following the city’s first attempt at annexation in 2017. All remonstrance waivers, which are signed by residents who essentially give up their right to protest annexation in exchange for living in an area with city sewer access, were voidable by this 2019 law for those who were 15 years of age or older.

Eighty percent of the remonstrance waivers signed by locals in the areas that were going to be annexed were immediately void when this law was passed. Many of these exemptions of remonstrance were necessary for the city to be able to successfully annex the lands.

Before a new judge takes up the case, there won’t be a hearing for the annexation trial.

The ruling states that Smith, the defendant, and the plaintiff, the City of Bloomington, have until February 15 to decide on a special judge and submit their agreement to the Monroe Circuit Court. The Monroe Circuit Court will refer a case to a local judicial appointment if the parties cannot agree on a judge or if the suggested judicial officer declines to accept jurisdiction over the case. The court will then submit the case to a district facilitator, who will assist in the appointment of a new special judge, if the local judicial appointment rejects to assume jurisdiction.

Areas 1A and 1B are the subject of a different lawsuit brought by County Residents Against Annexation, a nonprofit organization established to resist Bloomington’s annexation aspirations. These regions gathered enough signatures to have the courts consider their petitions, but not enough to nullify any attempt at annexation. This lawsuit is set for trial on April 29.

 

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