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Lechliter v. Becker

Court of Chancery of Delaware

January 12, 2017

Gerald A. Lechliter
v.
Mayor Theodore W. Becker and Council of the City of Lewes, et al.,

          Date Submitted: January 11, 2017

          SAM GLASSCOCK III VICE CHANCELLOR

         Dear Counsel and Col. Lechliter:

         This matter is the latest iteration of litigation brought by the Plaintiff, Colonel Gerald A. Lechliter, opposing the use of portions of a former industrial park in Lewes, now owned by the State of Delaware and administered by the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control ("DNREC"). This particular action involves a lease of a portion of that property to the City of Lewes, and a sublease (the "Sublease") from Lewes to Lewes Unleashed Association ("Unleashed"), a nonprofit which maintains a dog park on the property. The Sublease was entered by Unleashed and Lewes in 2014. At the regularly-scheduled January 11, 2016 City Council meeting (the "Meeting"), the Lewes City Council unanimously voted to approve an amendment to the Sublease to Unleashed, which added a sliver of land to the Sublease in way of an access road, but which otherwise left the Sublease unmolested.[1] Col. Lechliter[2] makes three discreet claims in his Complaint. First, he argues that the notice of the agenda for the Meeting provided by the City did not comply with the Delaware Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA"), because it gave notice that the Meeting was to "consider" an amendment to the Sublease, but did not specifically inform the public that a vote might take place based on that consideration. Second, Lechliter points out that the amendment approved by City Council was reduced to a document signed by the Mayor on behalf of the City entitled "Addendum to Sublease" (the "Addendum") which, after reference to an exhibit showing the area added to the Sublease thereby, provided that "to the extent not inconsistent herewith, all of the other terms and conditions of the [S]ublease are hereby ratified and affirmed." According to Lechliter, the City Council did not vote on this "ratification" provision, and therefore the Addendum is ultra vires as executed. Third, to the extent the City Council did approve the "ratification" in the Addendum, Lechliter argues that the public received inadequate notice that "ratification" would be considered at the Meeting, in violation of FOIA. As a result of these deficiencies, Col. Lechliter seeks a declaratory judgment that the Mayor and City Council of Lewes violated FOIA, and that I "nullify" by injunction both "the January 2016 [City Council's] public meeting motion approving the amendments to the [S]ublease. . . [as well as] the provision in the [A]ddendum ratifying and affirming all other provisions of the [S]ublease."

         Resolution of these issues, to me, is straightforward. Such resolution must turn on the purposes for which our Legislature enacted FOIA. That purpose is spelled out at 29 Del. C. § 10001:

It is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that our citizens shall have the opportunity to observe the performance of public officials and to monitor the decisions that are made by such officials in formulating and executing public policy; and further, it is vital that citizens have easy access to public records in order that the society remain free and democratic. Toward these ends, and to further the accountability of government to the citizens of this State, this chapter is adopted, and shall be construed.[3]

         In other words, the purpose of FOIA is to ensure that public business is done in the open, so that citizens can hold public officials accountable. The purpose of FOIA is not to provide a series of hyper-technical requirements that serve as snares for public officials, and frustrate their ability to do the public's business, without adding meaningfully to citizens' rights to monitor that public business. It is in that light that I review the actions of Lewes and its officials here. 29 Del. C. § 10004(e) provides the specific instruction applicable here concerning notice for public meetings. Subpart two of that statute provides that

[a]ll public bodies shall give public notice of their regular meetings and of their intent to hold an executive session closed to the public, at least 7 days in advance thereof. The notice shall include the agenda, if such has been determined at the time, and the dates, times and places of such meetings, including whether such meeting will be conducted by videoconferencing; however, the agenda shall be subject to change to include additional items including executive sessions or the deletion of items including executive sessions which arise at the time of the public body's meeting.[4]

         It is against this standard that the City's notice must be judged. Any agenda included in the notice should at a minimum "alert members of the public with an intense interest in [the] matter of the [Council's] consideration of it."[5] The notice actually provided to the public is attached as an exhibit to the Complaint.[6] It provides, in part pertinent here, that new business would include "presentation and consideration of amending the land lease between the City of Lewes and Lewes Unleashed to expand the lease to include an access road pending concurrence of DNREC. In addition, consideration of naming the street, to include the cul-de-sac, adjacent to the entrance to the dog park." Col. Lechliter's principal complaint with this notice is that it provides only that the City will "present and consider" an amendment to the Sublease that would expand the areas subleased to Unleashed. In other words, in Col. Lechliter's view, a notice that the Council would "consider" amending the dog park lease to enlarge it is insufficient to put the public on notice that the Council might vote on that amendment. But this would be a hyper-technical application of the notice requirement entirely inconsistent with FOIA, as I read it. Any citizen of Lewes who had an interest in the dog park lease would understand that an amendment expanding that lease was being considered by the City Council at its regular meeting on January 11, 2016. The purpose of that consideration, obviously, was to inform a vote by the City Council either approving or denying such an amendment. The public, including those with an interest in the dog park, had all the notice they required that this subject-of particular interest to them-was under review by the City Council. The notice does not explicitly say that a vote of the City Council would take place, and, of course, such notice would have been impractical; the Council could have considered the issue and undertaken a number of actions, including tabling the matter, as well as voting for or against it. Nothing in FOIA, and importantly nothing in a common-sense reading of the statute in light of its purpose, requires public notice to provide every alternative that may take place with respect to a specific subject under consideration.[7] All that the statute requires is that adequate notice of the matters to be considered is given to the public, so that interested members will have an opportunity to appear and monitor or participate in the proceedings.

         In his Brief in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss, Col. Lechliter makes a contextual argument: that Lewes has in the past given notice that the Council expected to act on, not just consider, a matter disclosed. It is unclear whether Lechliter means to argue that this course of dealing-departed from with respect to the published agenda for the Meeting-would have misled the public into ignoring that meeting despite interest in the Sublease, on the theory that no vote would take place; or whether the past public notices to which he refers constitute an admission that disclosure of an intent to vote in the published agenda is required by law. In any event, the single example cited by Lechliter is inapposite. He cites a prior City Council meeting notice as including on its agenda "[p]resentation and consideration of the dog park initiative, to include the approval of the location and initial design concept for the park." As a matter of English, this simply states that the Council would "consider" approval of features of the dog park, not vote for that approval itself. It suffers from the same supposed "inadequacy" Lechliter points to in the notice of the Meeting, which in fact is no inadequacy at all; Lechliter's reading only reinforces the common-sense interpretation that a council's "consideration" may lead to a vote. The public notice of the agenda published by the Defendants, in light of the vote taken at the Meeting itself, does not violate FOIA.

         Next, Col. Lechliter objects to the language of the Addendum, which is also attached to his Complaint as an exhibit, that effectuates the vote of the City Council.[8] Lechliter argues that the "ratification" clause of the Addendum goes beyond what was voted on by the City Council-and is thus ultra vires-or that it was absent from the public notice, and thus in violation of FOIA. The Addendum is brief, it includes an exhibit which shows the expanded Sublease approved by unanimous vote of the City Council, and then provides that "to the extent not inconsistent herewith, all other terms and conditions of the [S]ublease are hereby ratified and affirmed." This language, I find, is consistent with the public notice of the meeting, which informed the interested public that consideration would be given to amending and increasing the extent of the Sublease, not to repealing the lease and replacing it. The minutes of the Meeting, attached as an exhibit to the Complaint, [9] are also consistent with the Addendum; the minutes provide at paragraph four that:

[p]resentation [and] consideration of amending the land lease between the City of Lewes and Lewes Unleashed to expand the lease to include an access road pending concurrence of DNREC. In addition, consideration of naming of the street, to include the cul-de-sac, adjacent to the entrance to the dog park.
Mayor Becker stated the development of a dog park has been in process for a long time and is still moving forward. After several months of negotiation with DNREC, [Unleashed] has been able to obtain a lease. Now they need an access road and Council wants to consider making it a part of the existing lease. Also, there is a request for naming the road Canine Court with an address to be 1 Canine Court.
Councilperson Osler stated [Unleashed] has done a great job. There are two pieces to this request. They would like to keep the construction access road, instead of the originally planned road, which would amend the lease to include an additional small sliver of land. They would also like to name the road Canine Court and give the dog park the address of 1 Canine Court. She has spoken with DNREC and does not anticipate any problems, but if DNREC should have any ...

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