Williams wins appeal but suit far from over

EVANSTON — Two years after former Evanston City Planner Paul Knopf filed suit against the City of Evanston and Mayor Kent Williams — both in his individual capacity and as mayor — a panel of three judges has ruled in favor of Williams. But the ruling could mark not even the beginning of the end for the lawsuit — perhaps the beginning of the middle.

The ruling, which was filed on March 5 in the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, was 2-1 in Williams’s favor.

The March ruling followed oral arguments last November, in which attorneys for Knopf and Williams argued whether the lawsuit should move forward with the mayor listed as a defendant in both his personal and professional capacities, as U.S. District Court Judge Mark Carman ruled on March 21, 2017.

The recent ruling is a win for Williams, though the lawsuit is far from being resolved. Knopf’s attorneys, Jim Phillips of Evanston and John Robinson of Jackson, have filed a petition for a rehearing before the court’s entire bench, rather than a panel of three judges.

Phillips said that type of request isn’t very common, but he and Robinson argue in the petition that if the appeal stands, it will “unnecessarily chill and disenfranchise public employees from being able to speak up on matters of government corruption without fear of retaliation.”

They argue that the ruling in appellate court is inconsistent with previous decisions made in the same court, as well as rulings by the Supreme Court and circuit court judges.

In the March 5 ruling, Judge Scott M. Matheson Jr. wrote the majority opinion and Judge Mary Beck Briscoe, who concurred with Matheson, also issued an opinion. Senior Judge David M. Ebel disagreed and wrote a dissenting opinion.

Knopf sued the City of Evanston and Williams in March of 2016, a couple of months after the longtime planner was fired amid much controversy surrounding the Bear Meadows project. Knopf, who worked for the city for 31 years, had previously sent City Attorney Dennis Boal an email expressing concern of possible misuse of city money on the project. Williams, who is represented by Cheyenne attorney Richard Rideout, said the move was insubordinate, that Knopf could no longer be trusted and that it would be disruptive to the city if Knopf was reappointed as planner.

Although many had expressed concerns over the Bear Meadows project, Knopf’s involvement seemed to focus on city officials ignoring then-project manager Brent Sanders’s recommendations, including one not to pay a controversial change order, drainage problems and other concerns. Sanders had told the city it shouldn’t pay the overage, and he refused to sign a change order recommending such payment.

Knopf, who stayed in the loop — at least somewhat — about some project details, told Boal via email that Honey’s judgment might be clouded by his friendship with T-Bar owner and former city councilman Curtis Rex. Honey had pushed for the city to pay the $22,300 to T-Bar, which called the overage a mistake in calculations. Honey has denied that he and Rex are friends but, rather, had a working relationship.

Knopf had told the city attorney that if Honey continued to impede Sanders’s authority as project manager a future meeting might need to take place with Boal.

Williams eventually gave authority of project manager to then-City Engineer Brian Honey, and Sanders said he was left to wonder why he was pushed out of his role. The city considered not paying Sanders for the full contract, although after at least one executive session, the city paid his firm, Cook-Sanders Associates, what was owed under contract.

With Sanders out of the way, Williams and the city council approved to pay T-Bar Construction $22,300 more for topsoil than the local company had bid for the work, despite much public outcry.

Shortly after Knopf sued Williams and the city, in March 2016, Williams asked for the suit to be thrown out, which it wasn’t, and then asked for summary judgment, which was partially granted. The ruling, however, kept Knopf’s First Amendment claim alive, including his argument that Williams should be held personally accountable for retaliating against Knopf when he raised concerns of possible government corruption. 

The two parties have been arguing — either through filings, in mediation or in court — ever since, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.

Should Knopf be granted a rehearing, it wouldn’t take place for several more months. Then whichever party prevails could appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Knopf could do the same if his recent request for a rehearing is denied by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

No matter the outcome of any of those scenarios, once a final ruling has been made whether Williams can be personally held liable in the suit, the case will be sent back to federal court in Jackson to determine whether the city parting ways with Knopf violated the former planner’s First Amendment rights to begin with.

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