Plaintiffs' legal team adds lawyer in Opus case

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 | 9:01 p.m. CDT; updated 9:13 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 20, 2014

COLUMBIA — The legal team representing Betty Wilson and Michael MacMann in their lawsuit against the city of Columbia added a new face Tuesday.

Attorney Joseph "Chip" Sheppard, who won a $225,000 settlement in April in a Springfield civil rights case, filed as plaintiffs' co-counsel with the Boone County Circuit Court on Tuesday, according to court documents. Jeremy Root, one of his co-counselors in the case, confirmed that Sheppard had been hired.

In their lawsuit filed Aug. 12, Wilson and MacMann allege the city and City Manager Mike Matthes violated their rights to free speech and referendum. The two were members of two separate referendum petition drives against ordinances authorizing two development agreements with student housing developer Opus Development Co., which plans to build a six-story, 259-bed building on Locust Street. The Columbia City Council repealed both those ordinances rather than placing them on the ballot for a public vote.

The plaintiffs allege their rights were violated when the city passed the second development agreement while the petition process against the first was ongoing and when the city said the project would move forward without a development agreement in place while the second petition process was ongoing.

Boone County Circuit Judge Christine Carpenter issued a temporary restraining order on Aug. 13 that blocked the city from taking any action relating to the project except for voting on the repeal of the second development agreement. The council repealed that ordinance early Tuesday morning. Opus can't be issued the permits it needs to proceed with construction while the restraining order remains in effect.

Root filed a motion Monday that asserted the city violated the restraining order Friday by marking the site's utility connections with spray paint and pressed for sanctions against the city.

Sheppard did not respond to a request for comment. Root said the plaintiffs would benefit from Sheppard joining the legal team because of his experience litigating similar cases.

One case on Sheppard's resume stands out.

He represented Maranda Reynolds,  Show-Me State Cannabis Regulation Inc. and the American Victory Coalition in a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Springfield. In 2012, the group put forward an initiative petition to decriminalize the possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana, according to a city of Springfield news release. When the Springfield City Council later approved the ordinance, some members expressed concerns over language in the measure but passed it anyway.

Later, unable to agree on language changes, the council repealed the ordinance. That prompted the lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged that their rights had been violated and that the ordinance should have instead been voted on by the public.

Sheppard's clients agreed to a $225,000 good faith settlement with Springfield, which included no admission of the city's guilt.

A motion hearing in the Opus case has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday at Boone County Courthouse. Root said in an email that the hearing is on pending motions: one from two Opus entities to intervene in the case and one from Root calling for sanctions against the city for violating the temporary restraining order. If Opus is allowed to intervene, Carpenter also will hear its motion to dissolve the restraining order.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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