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CITIZEN REVOLT: Opus lawsuit alleges Matthes, City Hall violated civil rights

A "reckless, callous disregard"
 
COLUMBIA, Mo 8/14/14 (Beat Byte) -- In a petition before Boone County Circuit Court that cites lying, subterfuge, and multiple attempts to deprive Columbia citizens of their Constitutional and City Charter-granted rights, Betty Wilson and Michael MacMann are suing Columbia city manager Mike Matthes and City Hall. 

"The lawsuit was filed to protect the rights of the Plaintiffs," plaintiffs' attorney Jeremy Root told the Heart Beat.  

A prominent Columbia attorney, Wilson is the widow of former Columbia Mayor and City Council member Clyde Wilson.  With Root, MacMann is a leader of Repeal 6214, a citizen group that submitted two successful petitions to quash Council approval of the Opus Development Group's controversial student apartment downtown, the subject of the suit. 

Hastily approved for access to taxpayer-owned infrastructure city officials claim is in critically short supply, the Opus project has proceeded as if the petitions and their citizen signatories don't exist, the suit claims. 

Filed Tuesday, Cause 14BA-CV02668 alleges Matthes conspired with his staff, at least four City Council members, and Opus to deprive Columbia citizens of their "right to repeal ordinances passed by Council under Article XVII of the Columbia City Charter." 
 
With "disparaging statements about the Petitioners" and multiple moves to foil citizen participation, Matthes and City Hall "thus violated their rights to free speech, to petition the government, all as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution," Root and fellow plaintiff attorney Josh Oxenhandler explain.   

The Lie

The lawsuit recaps a lie that prompted Columbia's Downtown Leadership Council to demand an apology from Matthes in May.   "Matthes said the City's infrastructure can't handle any new downtown or central city building," the suit explains.   "The pace of development in the area has outstripped the electric and sewer capacity, which he said is '100 percent' utilized." 

The subterfuge continued when in March, two special City Council meetings were "unlawfully called in violation of Section 2-22 in the Columbia Code of Ordinances."   The meetings' only purpose was to approve Opus and two other student apartments closer to the Mizzou campus. 

Matthes and Mayor McDavid, meanwhile, set an anti-citizen tone that permeated subsequent hearings and discussions.   The tone indicates the two were bent on shutting down citizen participation, the suit claims.  "Mayor McDavid criticized petition circulation and signing the petition as 'dangerous, reckless and irresponsible'.  Defendant Matthes criticized petition circulation and signing the petition as 'foolhardy'." 

Councilwoman Chadwick followed suit, confronting petition gatherers and signers at Art in the Park with similar admonitions.  

The Decoy

After City Clerk Sheela Amin validated the first petition's 3,500 signatures, Council members repealed the first Opus Ordinance, Bill 62-14.

Matthes then prepared and Council passed a second so-called "decoy" ordinance, Bill 130-14. 

That move, the lawsuit claims, was an egregious civil rights violation.   "The action of City Council in adopting Bill 130-14 while the referendum petition for Bill 62-14 was still pending was an illegal attempt to circumvent the intent of Article XVII of the Columbia City Charter and the rights afforded to citizens thereunder."

The Hoax

A demolition permit granting Opus permission to demolish buildings on the proposed apartment site -- which the developer does not own -- turned out to be a hoax and part of another move to violate civil rights, the suit claims.  

Insisting his staff had granted Opus a demolition permit, Matthes placed a Resolution to close streets around the site on the Council's automatically-approved Consent Agenda, which allows for no debate and no repeal.    Based on the permit hoax, a majority of Council members approved the closures -- with suspicious timing. 

"Defendant Matthes conspired with Mayor Robert McDavid, First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick, Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp, and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser to issue street and sidewalk closure permits for the development...before the Second Petition was certified as sufficient," the suit claims.   

Reckless and callous

"The actions of Defendants City and Matthes were with reckless, callous or serious indifference to, or disregard for, the federally protected rights of the Plaintiffs," the suit claims. 

Plaintiffs are seeking "actual, compensatory and punitive damages, reasonable attorneys’ fees and expenses, pre and post judgment interest, costs of Court, and for such other and further relief as the Court deems just."  

The suit also seeks a restraining order "enjoining the City and Matthes from issuing any permits in connection with Opus until such time as adequate infrastructure exists to serve the proposed use." 

"I have received no information previously about this," Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe told the Heart Beat.  "Your email is the first I have heard." 

Matthes and the other Council members did not respond to a request for comment.



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