Second suit filed against city council

Published 8:11 pm Thursday, February 18, 2016

A second group of plaintiffs filed suit against the City of Troy and most of its elected officials on Thursday alleging ongoing violations of the Open Meetings Act.

The complaint was filed by attorney Eric Hutchins on behalf of Jason B. Thomas, Juretha Thomas and Jake Wingard and is the second suit filed in conjunction with the city’s recent appointment of a new fire chief.

“The lawsuit was just filed today so we have not even had a chance to review it in any real detail,” said Rainer Cotter, attorney for the City of Troy. “The suit has not even been formally served yet.”

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But, he added, “from a quick review of the suit, it for the most part attempts to repeat the same allegations that Mr. Jones made in his suit.”

Troy Fire Marshal Willie Jones filed suit on Jan. 21 seeking to reverse the appointment of Michael “Buford” Stephens as fire chief. One of four internal candidates for the position, Jones’ suit cites violations of the Open Meetings Act and an illegal committee meeting during the selection process. Jones’ complaint, as well as the new complaint filed on Thursday, names the City of Troy, Mayor Jason Reeves and council members Charlie “Sarge” Dunn, Greg Meeks, Marcus Paramore and Johnny Witherington as defendants. Councilwoman Dejerilyn King Henderson is not named as a plaintiff in either suit.

Circuit Judge Shannon Clark heard testimony last Friday in the city’s motion to dismiss the original suit but has yet to issue her ruling. During that hearing, Cotter argued that Hutchins’ original filing was not verified and should be nullified.

“The new suit basically admits that we were correct in our legal grounds which support dismissal of Mr. Jones’ lawsuit,” Cotter said Thursday. “The suit filed today does not have merit. It is full of inaccuracies and I feel confident that it will be resolved in favor of the mayor and the four council members named in the suit.”

Hutchins said the suit filed Thursday is part of the effort to address what he called ongoing violations of the Open Meetings Act. “As I mentioned in the hearing, there are going to be other plaintiffs,” he said. “A federal lawsuit is going to be filed as well …”

“There is an ongoing, systematic violation of the Open Meetings Act. Through these executive committee meetings, the city council engages in what is in essence a council meeting.”

The complaint filed Thursday says the city violated the Open Meetings Act on Jan. 12, Jan. 26 and Feb. 9 by failing “to provide proper notice of the ‘Executive Committee’ meetings.” The complaint also refers to the fire chief selection process, saying the defendants “engaged in a practice of pre-selection that excluded Plaintiff, all applicants, and all other potential applicants (statewide and nationally) from a fair and non-discriminatory process.”

Moreover, Hutchins said, “I believe and we believe (the defendants) have met and discussed the litigation of Mr. Jones and they have met and discussed how they are going to handle potential votes relating to this litigation.”

In doing so, he added, they have violated Henderson’s rights as a member of the city council “by excluding her from the deliberations.”

Henderson abstained from the council’s vote to appoint Stephens and helped organize the press conference to announce the filing of Jones’ suit, during which she stood beside Jones and said she supported his efforts to sue the city and to overturn the appointment. “They’re saying she can’t be a part of the process … because she stood next to Mr. Jones and because she supports him … and that’s a violation of her First Amendment rights,” Hutchins said, adding that he represents Henderson and is working with her to file a federal complaint regarding the situation.