LAW Sues For Documents

March 22, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Local Area Watch (LAW) recently filed a lawsuit against the City of Grand Rapids seeking public documents related to alleged spills of hazardous waste in the North Monroe Business District. LAW filed the complaint under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in Kent County Circuit Court a few weeks ago.

The city reportedly responded by saying some of the papers that LAW requested do not exist, while others are exempted from public release under the FOIA.

Judge Dennis Lieber has been assigned the case. A hearing date has not been set.

LAW is seeking public records that concern the city’s supposed involvement in the containment and removal of contaminated soil at the former water filtration plant at 1430 Monroe Ave. NW. LAW claims that the soil, which reportedly contains toxic contaminants, came from the site of the Berkey & Gay renovation project at 940 Monroe Ave. NW and was taken to the plant. A developer in the project bought the filtration plant from the city in 1999.

“Local Area Watch had sent several FOIA requests to the city and had gotten some documents but not all that they felt should have been disclosed and the city asserted some exemptions,” said Peter Steketee, an attorney representing LAW.

“It’s our claim that the city has to disclose these documents and that they’re not exempt,” he added.

Assistant City Attorney Dan Ophoff told the Business Journal that some of the requested documents are exempted under Section 13 of the state statute, while the city doesn’t have others. He added that the “shotgun” approach LAW used in making its initial FOIA filing last summer has made it difficult for the city to determine which papers were requested.

In its complaint, LAW alleges that the city concealed three events from the public that pertain to the potential contamination issue. LAW claims that the city:

**Received notice from the National Response Center in October 2000 that hazardous waste had been released at the filtration plant.

**Sent street sweepers in November 2000 to clean streets and private property of spilled soil along the route the dirt was transported.

**Sent the Department of Environmental Quality in December 2000 the results of tests taken for contamination levels of stormwater sewers in the immediate area.

LAW named the city, the City Commission, the Historic Preservation Commission and the North Monroe Tax Increment Financing Authority as possibly having documents related to the issue.

Steketee thought the case might enter the discovery stage next and that Lieber may review some of the papers in private to decide whether the city’s claim to exemption is valid.

“There presumably will be a hearing, or a trial, at some point if the parties can’t agree on what the facts are. This is not like a typical case where there may be a lot of facts in dispute,” said Steketee.

“My guess is most everything will be agreed to and the court will make a ruling.”

Ophoff felt both sides would be meeting with Lieber to set scheduling dates to define the case’s course. If an agreement couldn’t be reached, he said it was likely the matter would go to trial.

LAW is a nonprofit corporation chartered to monitor public, nonprofit and government groups for misconduct. William Tingley III, general manager of Proto-Cam Inc., is executive director of LAW.

LAW also filed a suit with the state in May against the B&G building owners, their lender, and the city for their parts in allegedly removing an estimated 14,000 tons of contaminated soil. An investigation into that complaint is ongoing.           

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