A&A: Board retailiating against former colleague who called them on Brown Act violations

Q: I am a former 15 year elected official for a small airport special district. Prior to being a board member, I have been a hangar tenant at the same airport. In 2008 I decided to not run for another term and became a spectator. What I observed with the new Board was an immediate termination of the GM and hiring of a new GM with no public sector experience.

Since his employment, I caught and exposed some misuse of public funds, taking gifts from contractors. Also, the Brown Act is violated at nearly every meeting. Contracts involving money all done in closed sessions.

All these and more are exposed by me at public meetings. I am as harsh on the Board as the GM, since they ignore the wrongs.
The Board has never challenged or rebutted any of my remarks. Instead, everytime I spoke at a meeting, I would receive emails infering my hangar insurance was in question. When I inquired, I never received an explaination or any response. Time would go by, I attend another meeting, then another email about insurance, until finally I received notice that I would no longer have access to my hanger although the rent was always paid in full and on time. Who helps citizens in my situation? Any gov agency? Legal group? I can’t afford to hire an atty to fight a government agency with unlimited funds. Thanks

A: Indeed, retaliation by the government against a person for exercising his First Amendment right of free speech is prohibited under the constitution. See, e.g., Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 256 (2006) (as a general matter, the First Amendment prohibits government officials from subject an individual to retaliatory actions for speaking out); Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 597 (1972) (government officials may not punish a person or deprive him or her of a benefit on the basis of his or her “constitutionally protected speech”).

If an indivudal is singled out and subject to disfavorable treatment in retaliation for that person’s speech, this may be a violation of the individual’s First Amendment rights.

You may be able to find an attorney to assist you through the First Amendment Coalition’s Lawyer’s Assistance Request Form at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/legal-hotline/lawyers-assistance-request-form/.

Some attorneys are willing to work on contingency. Also, although the general rule in this country is that each party pays his or her own attorneys’ fees, there are certain statutes under which you can recoup attorneys’ fees should you prevail. It could be that there is a statute (for example, 42 USC § 1983, which applies to civil rights claims) that would permit such recovery should you prevail in a lawsuit against the board.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.