The Gulf County Board of Commissioners, three current and former commissioners and a Port St. Joe resident are named as defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week.
The suit, filed by political action committee Citizens Improving Gulf County and its president Jim Garth, alleges that the BOCC, current Commissioners Warren Yeager and Carmen McLemore and former commissioner Bill Williams abused their power and illegally retaliated against the PAC and Garth for exercising protected First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit also names Lois McElroy, a.k.a Christine or Christy McElroy, alleging she coordinated with the BOCC in the attacks against Citizens Improving Gulf County and Garth.
The suit further levels a count of defamation toward McElroy.
The suit asks for a jury trial and for unspecified “punitive and compensatory” damages.
The lawsuit was filed by Tallahassee attorney Marie Mattox.
The allegations center on three 2012 BOCC meetings during which Citizens Improving Gulf County, Garth and other members were, according to the complaint, “attacked” and “humiliated” for exercising their rights to free speech and questioning government.
The first meeting was on April 24, 2012 when McElroy spoke during the “Public Discussion” portion of the BOCC meeting. McElroy, the complaint alleges, was “invited and choreographed” to speak to the BOCC about Garth and the PAC.
At that meeting, McElroy alleged that during a meeting with Garth and two other PAC members she was asked to assist in digging up information that could be embarrassing to members of the BOCC and would be in turn “fed to the press.”
McElroy mentioned a letter written by her to the BOCC detailing her allegations and “as if on cue”, the complaint details, Yeager requested the letter be read aloud in its entirety. The letter essentially detailed the allegations McElroy made, the complaint asserts.
The second BOCC meeting came on July 24, 2012, after Garth had sent a letter to Yeager requesting he resign due to a conflict due to his employment with Preble Rish Engineers, the county’s engineers of record.
The Yeager allegations had been publicly aired by PAC members, the complaint details.
The allegations concerning Yeager are also the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Florida Commission on Ethics, which is scheduled to hold a closed hearing on the matter this week.
At the July 24 BOCC meeting, the complaint details, McElroy again discussed Garth and the PAC during the “Public Discussion” portion of the meeting.
McElroy began by asserting that the PAC had raised questions about the passing of a county nuisance and homeless shelter ordinance and again, the complaint notes, McElroy was provided additional speaking time by commissioners.
Yeager and Williams picked up the comments from there, with Yeager saying there were personal attacks against him and “threats to his family and others,” according to the complaint.
Williams said the PAC had bad intent and motives and “was out to destroy people.”
McLemore said if the PAC had problem it should come after him and leave family alone, alleging threats that had not been made, the complaint reads.
The lawsuit alleges the BOCC “choreographed” McElroy’s appearance and comments and “were motivated to retaliate for Garth’s exercise, on his own behalf and on behalf of the PAC, of First Amendment rights.”
The lawsuit details that in a matter unrelated to the BOCC meetings, the State Attorney began an investigation based on a complaint by Yeager. The lawsuit alleges the investigation was “initiated and conducted” in retaliation for Garth’s and the PAC’s legal and protected statements.
The final meeting detailed in the complaint concerns a BOCC meeting of Oct. 25, 2012.
The lawsuit alleges that McElroy was invited into the room where commissioners were concluding preparation for the meeting where she offered documents pertaining to her upcoming comments that morning.
McElroy was again invited up during “Public Discussion” during which she “falsely and maliciously” attacked the PAC and Garth, detailing information from the SAO investigation which had already been closed, the lawsuit details.
McElroy and Williams used the term “extortion” to describe the actions of Garth and the PAC and criticized the actions of several local individuals during the investigation.
The lawsuit alleges that after that meeting, multiple phone calls, from one or more of the named defendants, were made to the SAO in order to have the “extortion” investigation reopened.
The sole result of the reopening of the case, the lawsuit details, was to shift the focus to a criminal conviction of Garth’s more than 40 years old and whether his voting rights had been restored.
The evidence of the conviction and the voting rights question has never been made public.
When the Gulf County Supervisor of Elections moved ahead to remove Garth from the voters rolls, the SAO failed to provide evidence of a crime and suggested the removal of Garth from the voting rolls should not progress.
The result, the lawsuit alleges, was “retaliatory humiliation” for Garth and the PAC.
They allegations are that operating under the “color of state law” as elected officials, the BOCC, Williams, Yeager and McLemore took actions designed to retaliate and humiliate and infringe on the protected interests of Garth and the PAC.
The board and commissioners continued that infringement through the “false complaint” that led to the SAO investigation and later by contacting the SAO to have the investigation re-opened, the lawsuit alleges.
Yeager, Williams and McLemore, individually, further infringed on the First Amendment rights of Garth and the PAC, the lawsuit alleges, through actions and words at BOCC meetings and the false complaint to the SAO.
The lawsuit makes the same claim toward McElroy through a legal theory that McElroy possessed “animus” toward Garth and the PAC and was spurred by “recommendation” through the actions of the BOCC.
McElroy, the lawsuit alleges, acted in “bad faith and malicious purpose” and “deliberate indifference and/or reckless disregard” for the civil rights of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit further alleges abuse of power by the BOCC and Williams, Yeager and McLemore for knowingly directing or causing the SAO investigation and for that investigation to be reopened, motivated by the private and illegal agenda of the board, individual commissioners or McElroy.
The board further erred by not having in place a policy to protect the plaintiffs constitutional rights to free speech and expression and failed to adopt a policy even after learning of the damage and harm to plaintiffs, including “grave mental anguish, pain and suffering, loss of capacity for enjoyment of life, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of reputation, lost employment opportunity and lost wages.”
McElroy is additionally sued for abuse of power – due to her allegedly providing the recommended path for the BOCC and individual commissioners to engage Garth and the PAC – and for defamation of character.