Town office lawsuit dismissed
MIDDLEBURY — An Addison County Superior Court judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit filed by a local man against the town of Middlebury, Middlebury College, the Addison Independent and Bread Loaf Corp. The plaintiff, Middlebury resident Alpine Bingham, alleged the defendants’ collective actions unduly influenced the electorate prior to votes held earlier this year on the $6.5 million municipal building/recreation center project.
Bingham claimed the four entities named in his lawsuit had sought to manipulate voters by highlighting the single project option that Middlebury residents approved first on March 4, and then again on May 13 after the same proposal had been petitioned for reconsideration. That project calls for construction next year of a new Middlebury municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center off Creek Road.
Bingham, a project opponent, filed his lawsuit back on May 27. He alleged, among other things, that:
• Middlebury College used its “donated tax-exempt money” to accomplish its “main goal” of acquiring the 94 Main St. property.
“The use of $5.5 million in tax-exempt funds to unduly influence a municipal election in this way is both a bribe and a threat,” Bingham stated in his lawsuit.
Bingham also alleged that the college’s concurrent donation to the town of the Lazarus building property at 22 Main St. is “not for any educational purpose and another bribe.”
• The Addison Independent “infringed on (his) 1st Amendment rights” by not publishing Bingham’s own, alternative concept for a municipal building project. Bingham brought his proposed design to the Independent offices on Friday, May 9 — a time during which the Monday, May 12, newspaper was being completed on deadline.
He also alleged that the town was only interested in pursuing the one plan and that Bread Loaf was complicit in “influencing the vote.”
Bingham requested the court rule as invalid the town office/recreation center bond votes of March 4 and May 13. He also requested that Middlebury College make “$7.5 million in punitive damages payable to the town of Middlebury to be disbursed according to the wishes of the voters of the town of Middlebury in elections supervised by the court.” He asked that the college be ordered make an additional payment of $2 million in punitive damages payable to the Parent-Child Center of Addison County to use for a teen center. Bingham additionally sought punitive damages of $10,000 from the Addison Independent; $5,000 from Bread Loaf Corp.; and $7,500 from the town of Middlebury.
Addison County Superior Court Judge Robert A. Mello on Oct. 31 issued an eight-page ruling dismissing Bingham’s lawsuit and his claims for any punitive or compensatory damages. Mello wrote, among other things, that:
• “In his action, the plaintiff has completely failed to allege by his amended complaint that actions of the defendants were reprehensible or tainted by malice. Indeed, plaintiff has not alleged any facts which could lead this court to conclude the actions of defendants were even the least bit wrongful.”
• “There is no applicable authority that precludes a private institution, such as Middlebury College, from partnering with a governmental entity to the end of jointly contributing to a proposed bond measure. Additionally, as a general matter, periodicals like that published by Addison Press Inc. are entitled to draw opinions on prospective ballot questions and endorse one position or another.”
• “Plaintiff has not set forth any facts demonstrating that the town was required to also present his alternative design to the voters, or, more importantly, that by refusing to do so it acted to unduly influence the electorate.”
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay reported in mid-November that the four lawsuits Bingham has filed against the town — all of which have now been dismissed — have cost the community around $12,000 in legal expenses.
UPDATE, DEC. 2: Bingham has appealed the Superior Court decision to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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