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Ohlms v. City of Foley

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 5, 2017

ERIC OHLMS, WILLIAM KARRAS, and JOSHUA FOX, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF FOLEY, MISSOURI, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RONNIE L. WHITE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant City of Foley, Missouri's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18). This matter is fully briefed and ready for disposition.

         BACKGROUND

         Defendant City of Foley, Missouri (hereinafter the "City") has a population between 110 and 150 residents. (Defendant City of Foley, Missouri's Statement of Uncontroverted Material Facts in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment ("DSUMF"), ECF No. 19, ¶2). The City's government is comprised of a Mayor and a Board of Aldermen (the "Board").

         Plaintiff Eric Ohlms became the City Clerk for the City on January 3, 2014. (DSUMF, ¶8). Plaintiff Joshua Fox became a full time police officer for the City on April 24, 2014. (DSUMF, ¶IO). Plaintiff Williams Karras became the Chief of Police for the City in September, 2014. (DSUMF, ¶9).

         At the end of 2014, the auditor for the State of Missouri completed an audit of the City. (Plaintiffs' Additional Statements of Uncontroverted Material Facts ("PASUMF"), ECF No. 22, ¶28). The audit found that the City had not reimbursed to the State $290, 000 from the revenue it generated from the municipal court under a law known as "Mack's Creek". (Id.). The City had no financial means to reimburse the State of Missouri for the $290, 000. (PASUMF, ¶29). The Board blamed the city legal counsel for the advice to withhold the funds. (PASUMF, ¶30).

         In April 2015, Keith Vertrees became the elected mayor of the City. (DSUMF, ¶4; PASUMF, ¶31)- Mr. Vertrees asked for a police vehicle to drive, a police radio, and a duty service number ("DSN") from the Lincoln County Sheriffs Department. (PASUMF, ¶31). As Mayor, Vertrees had no authority to control the daily operations of the city administration or the police department. (PASUMF, ¶33). The city attorney, Jeff Robertson, told Mayor Vertrees that as a mayor of a fourth class city he had no authority to control the city administration. (PASUMF, ¶33). At the time of Mayor Vertrees' election, the Board consisted of 4 members: Tory Cameron, Michael Baird, Keith Aubuchon, and Christine Higgenbotham. (DSUMF, ¶5). Alderwoman Higgenbotham resigned in August of 2015. (DSUMF, ¶6).

         In June 2015, Plaintiff Ohlms, Plaintiff Karras, and Plaintiff Fox warned the Board president Tory Cameron and Alderman Michael Baird to stop violating the Sunshine Laws by conducting city business in front of them and outside properly organized meetings. (PASUMF, ¶34). Otherwise, Plaintiffs said they would contact the Attorney General's Office to report them. (Id.)

         At the June 2015 meeting, the Board passed an ordinance prohibiting the public from recording the open session meetings. (PASUMF, ¶35). After that meeting, Plaintiffs told the Board that this ordinance was unconstitutional for public meetings and could only apply to executive sessions. (PASUMF, ¶35). The Board stopped inviting the city attorney Jeff Robertson to the regularly scheduled board meetings, as well as special Board meetings. (PASUMF, ¶35).

         In late July 2015, Ohlms contacted the Missouri Attorney General's Office and the Missouri Municipal League regarding repeated Sunshine Law violations being committed by the Mayor and the Board members. (PASUMF, ¶36). Karras and Fox also contacted the Attorney General's Office regarding the same Sunshine Law violations. (Id.) Each plaintiff made the Mayor and the Board aware that they were contacted the Attorney General's Office. (Id.) Plaintiffs contacted the Attorney General's Office because the Board and the Mayor would routinely conduct city business while visiting each other at their residences or in other social settings. (PASUMF, ¶37).

         At the July 2015 board meeting, the Mayor and the Board discussed ways to increase revenue for the City. (PASUMF, ¶38). The Mayor wanted the police department to issue more tickets to generate more revenue, which the Plaintiffs believed violated Mack's Creek law. Ohlms spoke and said that the problem was not the police department, but the Board and the Mayor spending more money than the City generated. Karras told the Board, "We will not police for profit, we will police for public safety." (Id.).

         In 2005 Alderman Baird pled guilty to a class C felony. (DSUMF, ¶13). In April 2015, Alderman Baird ran for re-election to the Board. (DSUMF, ¶12). In August 2015, the Mayor and the Board became aware of a new Missouri law that was to become effective on August 28, 2015 that disqualified anyone who had been found guilty or pleaded guilty to a felony from qualifying as a candidate for elective public office. (DSUMF, ¶14; PASUMF, ¶39). At the time the new law went into effect, Alderman Baird was not a candidate for the Board, since he had won re-election in April 2015. (DSUMF, ¶15). Plaintiffs became aware that Alderman Baird had a felony conviction, which Plaintiffs believed disqualified Baird from his position as an alderman. (PASUMF, ¶40). Plaintiffs Karras and Fox conducted an investigation into whether Alderman Baird falsified his Declaration of Candidacy form and contacted the Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney's office to request that criminal charges be filed against Alderman Baird. (DSUMF, ¶18). Plaintiff Fox alleged that the City attorney instructed him to file criminal charges against Mayor Vertrees, Alderman Baird, and Alderman Aubuchon for interfering with and disrupting a criminal investigation and prosecution. (DSUMF, ¶19).

         In late August/early September 2015, the City received numerous citizen complaints regarding Alderman Baird's prior felony conviction and its effect on his qualifications to serve on the Board. (DSUMF, ¶17; PASUMF, ¶42). Between August 28 and September 2, 2015, Plaintiffs collected six (6) citizen complaints, requesting that Alderman Baird be removed from office. (PASUMF, ¶44). Plaintiffs claim that the Board and Mayor Vertrees were upset that Plaintiffs gathered the citizen complaints. (PASUMF, ¶44).

         On September 8, 2015, Plaintiffs were ordered by Mayor Vertrees to appear for a special Board meeting on September 9, 2015. (PASUMF, ¶45). On September 9, 2015, the Board voted to terminate the employment of Plaintiff Ohlms due to insubordination and failure to comply with the directions from the Mayor and the Board. (DSUMF, ¶21). Plaintiff Ohlms' stated acts of insubordination included refusing the direction of the Board to provide the Mayor with a debit card for use in emergencies, refusing the Mayor's directions to provide funds for hot dogs and supplies for a youth league baseball game that had been authorized by the Board, refusing to report to work when directed to by the Mayor, and making statements refusing to recognize the Mayor's authority. (DSUMF, ¶22). On September 9, 2015, the Board voted to terminate the employment of Plaintiff Fox due to his insubordination and failure to comply with the directions given to him by the Mayor and Board. (DSUMF, ¶23). Plaintiff Fox's stated acts of insubordination included refusal to follow the directions of the Mayor and the Board with respect to patrol shifts, and office hours, and his refusal to follow instructions to supervise the morning school bus stop and loading of children. (DSUMF, ¶24). On October 8, 2015, the Board voted to terminate the employment of Plaintiff Karras for insubordination and refusal to comply with the directions given to him by the Mayor and Board. (DSUMF, ¶25). Plaintiff Karras' stated acts of insubordination included refusing to follow the direction of the Mayor and the Board with respect to patrol shifts and office hours, refusing to follow instructions to supervise the morning bus stop and loading of children, and failing to produce a written policy and procedure manual as directed by the Board. (DSUMF, ¶26). The Board members and Mayor claim that they were not aware that Plaintiff Ohlms made reports regarding potential Sunshine Law violations to the Missouri Municipal League or the Missouri Attorney General's office at the time the Board elected to terminate Plaintiff Ohlms' employment. The Board members and Mayor also claim they were not aware of Plaintiff William Karras' and Plaintiff Joshua Fox's report to the Lincoln County Prosecuting Attorney's Office concerning Alderman Baird's prior felony conviction at the time the Board elected to terminate Plaintiff Karras' and Plaintiff Fox's ...


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