Appellate court says Godfrey can't hide land appraisals

By Steve Korris | Oct 8, 2009


MOUNT VERNON – Godfrey village trustees can't hide appraisals of land they needed for the Crosstown Road project after quoting the appraisals at a public hearing, Fifth District appeals judges ruled.

The Fifth District chose not to decide whether the trustees could have exempted the documents under the state freedom of information act if they hadn't quoted them.

Justice James Donovan delivered the decision on Sept. 25, with Justices Richard Goldenhersh and Bruce Stewart concurring.

They reversed Madison County Associate Judge Thomas Chapman, who ruled that the trustees acted properly under an exemption in the act for current real estate negotiations.

They remanded the case so Chapman can order Godfrey to comply with a two year old request from Stobbs and Sinclair, a law firm in Alton.

Donovan wrote, "It is true that the record of the minutes of the public meeting are in summary form and that supporting affidavits lack detail."

"This does not mean, however, that there was no disclosure as defendants suggest," he wrote.

"Federal courts have held that a voluntary disclosure of records in one situation can preclude later claims that those records are exempt from release.

"We agree with plaintiff that this is exactly what happened here."

In 2007, village trustees signed letters of understanding with two farmers at $30,000 an acre.

They signed the letters contingent on state approval of the Crosstown road project.

At a public hearing on Oct. 2, 2007, the price sparked debate.

Donovan toned it down with passive voice and wrote, "Comparable sales used in the appraisal were discussed and asserted by some of the citizens to be inapplicable."

After the hearing, John Dale Stobbs requested the documents on behalf of his firm.

The trustees denied the request.

Stobbs filed a claim for miscellaneous relief in circuit court, placing it on the docket of associate judges.

Chief Judge Ann Callis assigned Chapman, who granted summary judgment to Godfrey.

He wrote that the act exempts real estate purchase negotiations until they have been completed or otherwise terminated.

"The plaintiff's position is at odds with the plain terms of the act," he wrote.

On appeal, Stobbs pleaded three ways.

First he claimed the exemption didn't apply because the trustees took unauthorized actions.

Next he claimed it didn't apply because the letters of understanding ended the negotiations.

Last he claimed waiver, and by granting it the Fifth District ducked the first two issues.

"The disclosure was made within the scope of defendants' authority as public officials conducting a public meeting," Donovan wrote.

"Based on defendants' voluntary disclosures in a public forum, defendants waived any exemption that might otherwise have applied," he wrote.

James Schrempf of Alton represented the village.

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