Belleville attorney: City not liable for claims involving Lindenwood homes

Garrett Hoerner in a BND file photo.
Garrett Hoerner in a BND file photo.

Belleville City Attorney Garrett Hoerner told City Council members that the city “enjoys absolute immunity from liability” from any claims filed in connection with Lindenwood University-Belleville homes that did not have special-use permits for students, according to a memo obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat.

Hoerner sent aldermen the memo on Thursday in response to questions raised by Ward 2 Alderman Mike Buettner, who wanted to know whether the city could be held liable if a “tragedy” occurred in a home with Lindenwood students.

Hoerner told city officials the Illinois Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act says the city “is not liable for an injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt an enactment or by failing to enforce any law.”

Hoerner, Buettner and Mayor Mark Eckert had declined to release the memo, which is labeled “personal-confidential attorney/client privilege do not disclose.”

Eckert has declined to comment on details of the memo but said last week that he believes “all the questions have been answered.”

The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals at 7 p.m. Wednesday will hear Lindenwood’s request for special-use permits for more than 50 homes and apartment buildings for Lindenwood students.

For the past four City Council meetings, residents who live near the West Main Street campus have complained about the number of Lindenwood students in their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the college released a report that says nearly 1,000 students and metro-east residents signed a petition in support of their application for special-use permits.

On Tuesday, the city denied the BND’s Freedom of Information request for Hoerner’s memo.

Here are other highlights of the memo:

▪  Buettner on Oct. 5 asked Hoerner to review whether the city waived fees for Lindenwood. Hoerner’s memo states the city has collected $89,428 in fees from Lindenwood. The city recently discovered that $500 in fees had not been charged, but this amount was paid after it was billed to Lindenwood. The memo doesn’t say why the $500 had not been charged in the first place.

▪  Buettner said he wanted Lindenwood to be cited for moving students into homes before obtaining special-use permits. Hoerner said the city reserves the right to cite Lindenwood if the City Council denies Lindenwood’s request for special-use permits. He also said the city administration’s actions in this case remain consistent with the city’s “long-standing, primary goal in code enforcement of ensuring compliance, such as providing corrective-action notices with a remedial timeframe or dismissing citations upon compliance.”

▪  Buettner wanted to know if Lindenwood has given the city a master plan of their intentions. Hoerner’s memo states Lindenwood has not submitted a master plan and the city has not conducted any impact studies related to Lindenwood. “However, Lindenwood has submitted extensive materials with its application, including documents addressing its intended use in relation to the city’s comprehensive plan,” the memo states.

▪  Buettner wanted to know how Lindenwood students were allowed to move into homes before the school received special-use permits. Hoerner said that when the city administration realized in August that Lindenwood did not have special-use permits, he was notified of this. He said under a “corrective-actions” section of the city code, Lindenwood was immediately advised to apply for special-use permits for the buildings filled with Lindenwood students.

Lindenwood’s application for permits for more than 30 properties was originally scheduled to be heard in September, but the school withdrew its application when the city learned that there were other Lindenwood properties that did not have special-use permits. A revised application with more than 50 properties was filed and is scheduled to be heard Wednesday night by the advisory zoning board.

The City Council has the final say on whether to accept Lindenwood’s application. If the zoning board takes action on Wednesday night, the case is expected to be on the City Council’s agenda on Monday night.

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