By Bryon Glathar
Herald Managing Editor
EVANSTON — More than two and a half years after Evanston Mayor Kent Williams fired longtime city planner Paul Knopf, resulting in an uproar from community members and some local leaders, the parties have settled Knopf’s First Amendment-based lawsuit against Williams and the City of Evanston. Knopf was paid $500,000, and his attorneys, James E. Phillips of Evanston and John H. Robinson of Jackson, withdrew the suit on Sept. 14.
Williams blindsided council members, several of whom disagreed with the mayor’s decision and expressed regret that they weren’t involved in the decision, by not reappointing Knopf after 31 years with the city. Williams met with Knopf on Jan. 4, 2016, in a heated meeting that ended in Knopf’s dismissal. The following day, the Evanston City Council approved all other appointed positions.
While many were shocked and confused at the time, all fingers pointed to an email Knopf had sent to Evanston City Attorney Dennis Boal in October 2017 as the reason the mayor fired Knopf. In the email, Knopf told Boal that if then-city engineer Brian Honey doesn’t stop interfering with then-Bear Meadows project manager Brent Sanders of Cook-Sanders Associates, then Knopf and others might have to meet with Boal.
Sanders had pointed out several deficiencies with the Bear Meadows project, including ponding in multiple areas and the need to replace sod in places. As project manager, Sanders was legally obligated to oversee the project.
Sanders refused to approve a change order for $22,230, to pay T-Bar Construction for additional topsoil because the company miscalculated the amount originally. After much debate and public comments, and after Sanders was taken off the project, the council voted to pay T-Bar the additional money. Honey and other officials said the city had always been fair with its partners and didn’t feel good about stiffing T-Bar over a miscalculation.
Knopf expressed concern to Boal that Honey and T-Bar owner Curtis Rex were friends, something Honey disputed, saying they only had a professional relationship. Rex, a former city councilman, is also Evanston City Councilman David Welling’s brother-in-law, which was pointed out at one heated council meeting, though Welling recused himself from voting on the change order approval.
Knopf sued the City of Evanston and Kent Williams, both as the mayor and as an individual, on Feb. 12, 2016, claiming he was wrongfully terminated because he was fired for the email he sent to Boal expressing concerns and possible misconduct. Williams said Knopf was being insubordinate by sending the email to Boal, though Boal told the Herald that it’s not uncommon for city employees to reach out to the city attorney if they have legal concerns.
On March 21, 2017, United States Magistrate Judge Mark L. Carman ordered a summary judgment in favor of Knopf, ruling that the suit could move forward against both the city and Williams in his individual capacity.
Williams and the city appealed that decision, and attorneys for both sides argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Three judges came back with good news for Williams on March 5 of this year, siding with him 2-1. Knopf asked for a retrial to be heard before the entire bench in the 10th Circuit, but his request was denied. Knopf’s only option to fight the ruling was to appeal to the Supreme Court. Instead, the parties agreed to mediation, and eventually agreed to the terms of the settlement on Sept. 5; the trial was originally set for this week.
In an email obtained by the Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request, City Attorney Boal informed the mayor and city council that “Knopf settled … Total was $500,000, most of which was attorneys fees (about $300,000 or so). Everyone is unhappy.” Several council members, however, responded with relief that the ordeal was finally over.
An economist and expert witness gave testimony that the financial impact of Knopf’s loss of employment totaled more than $1.12 million.
Knopf, in a prepared statement, said, “I am pleased that the mediated settlement provides closure for what has been a very long and challenging 33 months for [my wife] Cheryl, me, our families and the community. I am also very pleased with the result. Cheryl and I are thankful for the enduring support we received from family and friends, and from many others in the community. We are grateful for the guidance and expertise from our attorneys, James E. Phillips and John H. Robinson and their staff.”
Phillips said in a statement that representing Knopf in this case meant a lot to him.
“Representing Paul Knopf has been a highlight of my legal career,” he said. “The reason I went to law school some 44 years ago was to handle cases like this. The courage of Paul throughout this case has been remarkable. His willingness to stand up for his beliefs should be an example for us all.”
Phillips also praised Knopf’s wife, Cheryl, for standing by him and supporting him throughout the entire legal process. Phillips also praised the Herald for its “exemplary job in reporting the events leading up to the filing of the lawsuit and in coverage of the litigation that followed.”
The actual cost to the city is $5,000, the deductible for its liability coverage. The city is insured through the Wyoming Local Government Liability Pool. A representative there said premiums are based solely on a city or town’s payroll, so even a large claim such as this won’t increase future premiums.
The city did have other costs related to Knopf’s firing and the concerns over how the Bear Meadows project was handled. For instance, after the mayor gave Honey the project manager role, they were still contractually obligated to pay Cook-Sanders $16,000 for work it wasn’t allowed to perform. And there was the $22,000 paid to T-Bar Construction, as well as $7,000 they paid to Forsgren Associates to inspect and sign off on the project’s completion.
Not all costs were monetary. Days after Knopf was fired, the entire planning and zoning commission resigned. BEAR, Inc., which had raised more than $100,000 for Bear Meadows, cut its ties with the city, as did the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway board.
Williams said last week in a statement that it’s good to have the suit in the rearview mirror, though he indicated he’d do it all over again if given the chance.
“The settlement decision was in the hands of the insurance company and was made solely by them,” Williams said. “As for the case itself, I continue to stand by my decision regarding Mr. Knopf. That decision was made in my view with the interests of the city in mind and I continue to stand behind it.”