COLUMBIA — A federal judge has ruled in favor of the city of Columbia and City Manager Mike Matthes in a civil rights lawsuit filed last year by two plaintiffs who petitioned against development agreements between the city and Opus Development Co.
District Judge Nanette Laughrey of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri granted the city's motion for summary judgment (see below), saying the city had not violated the rights of plaintiffs Michael MacMann and Betty Wilson.
MacMann and Wilson were primarily represented in the lawsuit by attorney Jeremy Root, who also participated in initiative petitions intended to block Opus' construction of a student apartment building that is now open on Locust Street in downtown Columbia.
Laughrey said in her ruling (see below) that the plaintiffs had failed to show that the city or Matthes had interfered with their rights to participate in the referendum process and were thereby violated of their rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments. She said the city had complied with provisions of the city charter throughout the conflict that played out during the spring and early summer of 2014.
MacMann and Wilson, members of the petitioning group Repeal 6214, began gathering signatures in the spring of 2014 to repeal a development agreement that the Columbia City Council struck with Opus. That agreement called on the development company to pay $450,000 to address inadequate sewers downtown.
Petitioners, believing downtown infrastructure lacked capacity to serve the company's six-story, 259-bed apartment complex, almost immediately began collecting signatures to force either repeal or a public vote on the agreement. They submitted that petition to City Clerk Sheela Amin on April 8. On May 1, Amin said their petition lacked sufficient signatures, so they resubmitted on May 9. Amin on May 29 certified the petition as valid.
In the interim, however, the City Council passed a second, identical development agreement with Opus on May 19. It contained a caveat, though: If no initiative petition were submitted against the second agreement, the first would be repealed.
Laughrey, citing case law, said in her ruling that the city might have been vulnerable to a lawsuit if it had passed the second development agreement after the first petition had been certified.
In the end, a petition against the second development agreement was submitted and validated. The City Council repealed both agreements, but Opus was free to build after receiving all the necessary permits.
The plaintiffs also had argued that Mayor Bob McDavid undermined their petition effort when he labeled them "reckless and irresponsible" during a City Council meeting. Laughrey noted in her ruling that "City Council members had a First Amendment right to express their opinions on the referendum petitions, and were not required to publicly support them."
Laughrey's ruling is subject to appeal; the state case continues.
Attempts to reach Root, the plaintiffs' attorney; and Chris Rackers, the lawyer for the city, were unsuccessful. MacMann declined to comment.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.