A federal judge has denied motions to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the Board of County Commissioners and several current and former commissioners individually by a local political action committee.
District Judge Richard Smoak denied the motions – including one from a private citizen – in an order just prior to the Independence Day holidays.
Smoak’s one-page order decreed that the motions to dismiss were moot given an amended complaint filed by the attorney for Citizens Improving Gulf County and its president Jim Garth.
The defendants, the BOCC, Commissioners Warren Yeager and Carmen McLemore, former County Commissioner Bill Williams and Port St. Joe resident Lois, a.k.a. Christine or Christy McElroy, have until July 26 to respond to the amended PAC lawsuit.
The attorneys representing the former and current commissioners have already done so, repeating an earlier motion to dismiss for “failure to make a claim.”
Those were the grounds on which the prior motions to dismiss were based.
PAC attorney Marie Mattox was permitted time to amend the complaint and the grounds for the lawsuit remain unchanged. The amended motion primarily revised technical language.
“We are pleased with the recent federal decision denying the defendants’ request to dismiss the lawsuit and view it as a positive step in the struggle to show the public the real truth regarding the actions and behavior of these individuals,” read a written statement from Citizens Improving Gulf County.
“Through the efforts of discovery including depositions it is our goal to have this trial very transparent and open to the public. Anything less would be an injustice to the good people of Gulf County. They deserve better than what they have been given in the past and we are determined to correct that.”
County attorney Jeremy Novak said the actions of the previous two weeks were largely procedural in a federal court.
It is typical, he added, for the plaintiffs’ attorney to be provided an opportunity to amend the complaint in response to an order to dismiss but that there is a limited number of bites at the apple.
Novak said he expected the judge to rule on motions to dismiss the amended complaint sometime in mid-August and from there the case would be dismissed or proceed through the pretrial process.
The suit alleges that the BOCC, Yeager, McLemore and Williams abused their power and illegally retaliated against the PAC and Garth for exercising protected First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit alleges McElroy coordinated with the BOCC in the attacks.
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 allegations center on three 2012 BOCC meetings – spanning April 2012 to October 2012 - 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 lawsuit alleges the BOCC “choreographed” McElroy’s appearance and comments at each meeting, 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 noted in the lawsuit included comments centered in part on the State Attorney’s investigation, which at the time of the meeting had been closed with no charges filed.
It would ultimately be closed again with no charges filed – the most significant difference in the two documents closing case being a reference to a 40-year-old alleged felony conviction of Garth, the evidence of which 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.
“There is some irony in this (federal judge’s) decision coming forth as we just celebrated Independence Day which represents our freedoms that we feel were violated,” Garth said in a statement. “I am personally anxious to have these people under oath as soon as possible. In these days of government bullying, who wouldn’t want to have their elected official under oath?
“Lying under oath in a federal stetting is a serious crime so the incentive to be truthful is stronger and usually leads to the truth discovering everyone involved.”