Archive for Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Federal mediator to referee suit filed against city

City attorney, ex-administrator dismissed as co-defendants

September 3, 2003

Attorneys for the city of Tonganoxie and for a group of downtown business owners will meet this month in an attempt to settle a federal lawsuit filed against the city.

The lawsuit alleges the city violated the business owners' civil rights by boycotting their companies.

The lawsuit was brought by John Lenahan, Roger and Phyllis Shilling and Don Pelzl against the city of Tonganoxie, as well as former Mayor John Franiuk, city attorney Mike Crow and former City Administrator Chris Clark. Crow and Clark are no longer defendants in the lawsuit.

Although an exact date hasn't been set yet, the two sides will attempt to work out their differences sometime this month during a meeting with a mediator, according to J.B. King, a Topeka attorney who was hired by the city's insurance company. Mediation is required in all federal civil lawsuits, King said.

"A lot of cases are settled that way," King said.

Before meeting with the mediator, King said, both sides will give the mediator confidential statements on their respective positions.

"Then you have, typically, a group discussion of the case and the parties' positions," King said. "The mediator most often will divide the parties into groups and he'll shuttle back and forth between the groups and try to convince people it's in their best interest to settle the case."

King said he anticipated mediation would take only one day.

"We'll negotiate in good faith and see whether we can get it resolved," he said.

If mediation is not successful in settling the lawsuit, it will go to trial at 9:30 a.m. March 2 in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan.

King said Clark, the former city administrator, and Crow, the city attorney, were dismissed as defendants in the case because they weren't properly served papers notifying them of the lawsuit, which was filed in November 2002.

He said Crow should have been served at his house.

"But instead, he was served by delivering a certified letter to his law office at a time that he was not there and so he didn't sign for it," King said. "A similar situation exists with regard to Christopher Clark."

Clark left the city administrator's post in November 2001.

The suit alleges that because the business owners were critical of the city over a bond issue in 2000 to partially finance a downtown improvement project, that the city refused to do business with their companies.

The $1.1 million project included a wider Fourth Street, new sidewalks, storm sewers and new street lights.

The three sued the city, alleging there were irregularities in the proposed $700,000 bond issue. That lawsuit was settled out of court in November 2000.

The business owners, in particular the late Jean Lenahan, wife of John Lenahan, continued their public criticisms of some aspects of the bond issue after the suit was settled, the federal suit says. So, the suit says, Clark directed city employees not to make purchases at three businesses owned by the plaintiffs: Lenahan Hardware, Shilling Electric and Do It Best Hardware.

The lawsuit alleges the defendants violated the business owners' First Amendment right to publicly express their opposition to the bond issue, interfered with their businesses and portrayed them falsely.

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