INDIANAPOLIS | A Hammond man may get to keep his home after the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday the city panel that ordered it demolished was not impartial.
In a 2-1 decision, the court said the city attorney's membership on the Hammond Board of Public Works and Safety undermined the impartiality of the three-member board because a city attorney's office employee presented the case for tearing down Hugo Torres' allegedly uninhabitable house.
"Due process requires a neutral, or unbiased, adjudicatory decision maker," wrote Appeals Judge Melissa May. "We must accordingly hold Torres' due process rights were violated where an assistant city attorney argued the case against Torres before a board on which the city attorney participated as a member."
Appeals Judge Patricia Riley, a Rensselaer native, dissented from the ruling. She said the mere presence of the city attorney on the board isn't a due process violation unless there's evidence of actual, demonstrable bias.
Riley also questioned why Torres didn't also challenge City Engineer Stanley Dostatni's board membership, since Dostatni worked with the building commissioners and housing inspectors who condemned Torres' house.
This isn't the first time Hammond has run into trouble having its city attorney serve on the Board of Public Works and Safety, which also oversees roads, street signs, the police and fire departments and business licensing.
In 1980, the dismissal of a Hammond firefighter was reversed by the courts because the city attorney sat in judgment of a case presented by his staffer.
After Torres filed his lawsuit, former Hammond Corporation Counsel William O'Connor was replaced on the board by Fire Chief Jeffery Smith.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he didn't make the change in response to the lawsuit, but the issue identified by the appeals court no longer exists.
Lake Superior Court Judge John Sedia upheld the board's decision to tear down Torres' house but stayed the demolition order until the Court of Appeals heard the case.
McDermott said he has not decided whether to ask the Indiana Supreme Court to review the appellate decision.