Invalid lease runs up township legal bill

White River Township 1 Comment

We have all heard “no good deed goes unpunished.” This is a classic example. Mark Messick, the White River Township Trustee found soon after taking office that a lease between Center Grove Schools and the Township to lease space to the school was never legally executed by the previous trustee. To bring the Township in compliance with Indiana State Code, and avoid a black mark with the State Board of Accounts auditors, Messick asked the school to finalize the lease, the school corporation’s attorney said the lease should be made retroactive. Once the lease was agreed upon it would be submitted to the Township Board and the School Board for approval. The action, to correct the mistake of the previous Trustee, will end up costing the township about $9,000 in legal fees and a similar amount for the school system.

Back in December of 2008 the former White River Township Trustee entered into a lease with the Center Grove School Corporation to lease space for use as the Center Grove Academy. The idea seemed like a good one. The school received needed space for a great price. Instead of cash the school would provide cleaning services for the building, take care of snow removal, mowing, and other landscape related services. The plan was a good deal for both sides. The only problem was the former Trustee didn’t follow the rules. Indiana state code says that a lease longer than three year has to be approved by the township board. The former Trustee never asked for, or received approval for the lease. The lease with the school wasn’t valid.

Sometime after the new Trustee, Mark Messick, took over in January 2011 he began the process of getting the lease mess cleaned up. He started to work with the school system to clarify the lease and to see if they could agree on a final version. However since the lease was drafted in 2008 the school system had a change of plans. The Center Grove Academy had outgrown its space in the Township building and decided to move into the old Maple Grove Elementary School. Without a valid lease the school was free to leave. To smooth the transition and to make sure that the past years of occupancy were “legal” the school system negotiated a lease with the township that allowed them to leave the building in mid-June of this year.

On April 24 the Township Board called a meeting to adopt a lease with the school that would be retroactive to December, 2008 and allow the school to leave the building as they wished, long before the original end date in the invalid lease. Board member Peggy Young expressed her outrage that the “Trustee was spending” more than $8,000 in legal fees to negotiate a lease that would end in two months. When I asked Ms. Young if it was true that the only reason they were dealing with the lease now was because it was not legally executed by the previous trustee, she shook her head in frustration and offered no comment.

Messick has been a taking heat from Young and board member Dave Pollard, who couldn’t attend the April meeting, for most of their term. Even though Messick is closely following the procedures the state has in place for the operation of the office, the two board members seem to find some issue to blame on the trustee, or take issue with the way he provides poor relief services even though state law says the trustee has a pretty much free hand in providing those services.

The board has refused to allow the trustee to pay the township’s portion of expenses for the failed reorganization attempt with Greenwood, even though the township is legally obligated to do so. Earlier this year the board voted to lower the pay of the township investigator when Indiana law clearly states the Trustee, not the board, sets the investigator pay. The board had to “undo” that action in the next board meeting. It should be noted that Pollard and Young were both endorsed by the previous Trustee who Messick defeated in the Republican primary clearing the way for his election in November, 2010.

Is anyone one happy with the legal expenses incurred to negotiate a lease? Of course not, however if the previous trustee had followed the rules and had the board approve the lease in 2008 we would not be discussing this issue now. Blaming the current Trustee and Township Board, for problems created before their term began gets us nowhere. The current board and trustee should continue to focus on running the office as the law requires, cleaning up past mistakes, and running it as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do and move on. Fortunately the township has more than $600,000 of taxpayer money in the bank. The unexpected legal expenses of this incident won’t cause a shortage of funds for the township. It did provide an issue that some members of the board used to take politically motivated shots at the current Trustee.

One final note, at the same meeting the board approved more than $6,000 in additional expenses to cover cleaning the township building and taking over the other services the school provided in return for use of the building. That amount will cover the last half of expenses for 2012.


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