MONTGOMERY – Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Greg Griffin dismissed in total a lawsuit filed by State Auditor Jim Zeigler and Baldwin County residents Charles L. McMinn and David Peterson against Attorney General Luther Strange, Superintendent Robbie Owen and members of the Baldwin County Board of Education (BCBE) on Friday. The suit, filed by Zeigler May 1, alleged that the BCBE misused taxpayer funds when it used approximately $250,000 in public money to fund its failed Build Baldwin Now campaign for additional property taxes for schools.
Griffin ruled that the taxpayer plaintiffs lacked standing to sue and did not set out a cause of action against the defendants.
Griffin’s order to dismiss says the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue Strange because they did not plea an injury caused by Strange.
“There was not one iota of evidence presented to this Court to convince it that the Plaintiffs have standing to bring this suit against Attorney General Luther Strange,” Griffin’s order reads. “Consequently, Plaintiffs lack standing to sue the Attorney General, who is not a proper Defendant to this action. The claims against Attorney General Strange are dismissed.”
The court also ruled that the BCBE did not violate state code in spending taxpayer money for a tax referendum. The order cites a 2003 opinion from former State Attorney General Bill Pryor allowing public schools to use public funds and property to advocate on behalf of proposed ballot initiatives.
“If political activity includes all issue advocacy, then the Governor could not propose a tax increase or tax decrease to the Legislature and urge its approval, the Attorney General could not propose and support a crime bill, the Secretary of State could not propose and support changes to the State’s voting laws,” the order reads. “All these common events would be barred under Plaintiffs’ expansive reading of the statute.”
Baldwin County Board of Education President Shannon Cauley issued a statement Friday afternoon saying the school board is pleased the lawsuit has been dismissed.
“Our one and only concern prior to the referendum and today is to provide the students of Baldwin County a safe, conducive place for learning,” Cauley said. “We have more students than we have classrooms to put them. The only fix for this is adequate tax revenue to build school buildings. The only way to get the revenue is for the Board to inform the public that ‘we have a problem and we need your help to fix it.’ We have the immense challenge of getting our message out beyond parents and it was never our intent to upset anyone in pleading our case to the public for help to adequately serve our students.”
Zeigler said Friday he will study the ruling and decide next week whether to appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.
“The overcrowding problem has only grown worse since March as we’re adding portables daily across the county,” Cauley said. “We are extremely encouraged by all the work our citizens are doing to help build consensus. The Board is very appreciative of the work that is being done and wants to do what is right and best for our students.
“For the sake of our students, it’s best we all put the past behind us and move forward in working together to provide for the needs of our students,” Cauley said. “That’s job one.”
Updated Friday, July 17 at 3:42 p.m. to include comments form BCBE President Shannon Cauley.