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December 21, 2004

SLAPPing in Traverse City

See my entry of December 18th, All Politics is Local. A friend of mine sent the following to me, so I guess I'm not dreaming. This should be a concern of everyone. I added the bold highlighting, not that I needed to.

What are SLAPPs?

SLAPPs -- Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation -- are civil complaints or counterclaims (against either an individual or an organization) in which the alleged injury was the result of petitioning or free speech activities protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. SLAPPs are often brought by corporations, real estate developers, or government officials and entities against individuals who oppose them on public issues. Typically, SLAPPs are based on ordinary civil tort claims such as defamation, conspiracy, and interference with prospective economic advantage.

While most SLAPPs are legally meritless, they effectively achieve their principal purpose: to chill public debate on specific issues. Defending a SLAPP requires substantial money, time, and legal resources and thus diverts the defendant's attention away from the public issue. Equally important, however, a SLAPP also sends a message to others: you, too, can be sued if you speak up.

Every year thousands of people are hit with SLAPPs for such activities as writing a letter to a newspaper, reporting misconduct by public officals, speaking at public meetings, filing complaints with officials over violations of labor laws or health and safety laws, "whistleblowing" in corporations, or organizing tenants.

credit: California Anti-SLAPP Project

The Michigan Senate has a bill (1195) pending making SLAPPs illegal. I wonder how our city commissioners and attorney would respond when presented with this fact?

Posted by Gadflygirl at 02:49 PM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2004

Underdogs

Underdogs ...God bless her, our Mayor is one:

May 3rd City Commission meeting: "Moved by Csapo, seconded by Orth, that the request to allow Jeff Nixon, 114 E. Ninth Street, to take actions as delineated in his communication dated April 26, 2004, regarding preservation of the old brick water treatment building on the east side of the bay front power plant be received and filed."

No: Melichar, Smyka.

Then … "Moved by Jackson, seconded by Melichar, that the City Commission requests Jeff Nixon to create an economic analysis at his own cost regarding the preservation of the old brick building on the bay front and to work with the City staff, with such an analysis to be presented June 1 for consideration at the June 7 regular meeting."

Yes: Jackson, Melichar, Smyka, Hardy.

June 7th City Commission meeting: "Moved by Orth, seconded by Csapo, that the request from Jeff Nixon regarding preservation of the old brick building located on the bay front immediately west of the open space, be denied."

No: Melichar, Smyka.

August 2nd City Commission meeting: "Moved by Orth, seconded by Csapo, that the City Commission hereby denies any public showings of the Traverse City Light & Power bay front power plant and reaffirms the Commission's desire to have Traverse City Light & Power demolish, as soon as possible, all buildings and structures on the bay front and return the property to the City as open space." (Note: Jeff Nixon requested public tours and a two year moratorium on tearing down the brick building only).

No: Melichar, Smyka.

Credit: Minutes of Commission meetings

Even our mayor cited at one meeting that the City of Milwaukee renovated a water plant on the lake for public use. I wouldn't think she'd bring it up if she weren't in agreement that other ideas should be considered.

Now we have these two commissioners, Jackson and Orth, others, suggest the City go after a citizen for expenses (and no doubt, their co-commissioner, Melichar). Would this include the Mayor? Are they mad at her too for voting the "wrong" way?

These people need some humility.

Posted by Gadflygirl at 06:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 18, 2004

All Politics is Local

I know a man in our town who, when it was decided it was next to impossible to pursue his former career upon moving here, thought perhaps web design would be a part-time option until something else came along. Over the past two years, he has had a few small clients, two of which were on the order of "pro bono." These clients were two people who were running for re-election to public office, and this man felt they were representing him well … if he could make some small contribution to their efforts, great.

There is another local man, whom I don't know at all, but anyone could see he was a "grass roots" kind of guy, trying to save the brick building portion of the power plant on the bay for another community use. Whether it could be done is beside the point … he felt he had a good idea. He repeatedly showed up at City Commission meetings to offer his case, and to ask that the building not be torn down so fast. He also felt (and perhaps it is so stated in the City Charter) that the public utility building, bought and paid for with public funds, could only be disposed of with a vote of the public.

Mr. Grass Roots was getting nowhere fast, and it seemed the City Commission would now, as a result of his pleas, move full steam ahead in taking the building down. He appealed to the Courts to stop the demolition by suing the City.

Well back in the summer, before the lawsuit, a third citizen asked the web designer to put up a website with information about the brick building and the efforts to save it. The web designer did so and was paid minimally for his efforts. Mr. Grass Roots collected signatures on a petition, held public meetings attended by architects, local citizens, and local developers. You know, doing some of the same work done by others to save Building 50, or the Barns at the Commons, when both ideas were unpopular (and then turned out to be two of the best ideas ever).

The City, in the meantime, decided to sue Mr. Grass Roots for expenses the City has incurred in answering his lawsuit, "in order to teach a lesson." Mind you, there have been two other suits filed against the City by other citizens … one by two business owners who objected to the placement of the BATA station, and the other by a neighborhood which objected to the placement of a power pole in their historic neighborhood. The City won these two cases and to my knowledge, has not then "gone after" the business owners and neighborhood for expenses.

The City, in pursuing its case against Mr. Grass Roots, contacted the web designer for a discovery deposition, asking who hired him for the website, who paid him, how much was he paid, and for any and all material, including all emails, connected with the website. It was (in my opinion) not so subtly threatened that if it was felt by the City Attorney that all material from the web designer's computer was not delivered, the City could subpoena his hard drive.

So, here you have it. If you are a citizen of this community who goes against the mood of the city commission (a small body of people with special interests), then you may be sued. If you are a person who tries to help a grass roots group by putting their information on a website you designed, your method of livelihood, such as it is, may be taken from you just because someone has a "feeling" you may not have delivered all material.

Let's take it a step further … trying to effect change in your community by letter writing, letters to the editor or forum pieces in your local newspaper, photocopying flyers, placing ads in newspapers, holding public meetings about the issue, getting petition signatures, making a video for the public tv channel, or literally anything else, is subject to prying into your personal life and intimidation.

Posted by Gadflygirl at 08:22 AM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2004

Sue the Bastards

At last night's commission meeting, Commissioner Jackson once again brought up the question: when do we counter sue the group who wants to save the brick portion of the power plant? The Appeals Court has allowed the demolition of the brick portion of the power plant to continue. In the meantime, the Save TC Building group will have its lawsuit heard in court sometime in March.

The answer to Commissioner Jackson's question, from our City Attorney, is that the time for the City to ask for its expenses in answering this lawsuit would be in March, when the City "wins the case" against Save TC Building.

In the past year, there have been a couple of lawsuits filed against the City. One was to remove the tower on Wadsworth, which was placed in this Central Neighborhood without advance notice. The other was a suit brought by a market on Front Street and a commercial office/residential building on the Bay, where the BATA station will be located.

Whether the objectives of these two lawsuits, or the Save TC Building lawsuit, are worthy to anyone else is beside the point. When a group feels it has a serious stake in the outcome of an action by the City, and the City and the group cannot come to an agreement, it would seem that the group may have no other recourse than to ask the court to step in. I'm sure these groups are not happy about spending time, nor money for attornies' fees, other than they feel there is no other choice.

So what does this say to anyone who has something which they feel should be mediated by a third party (the court)? It means that no one will feel they can approach a compromise, or settlement, or even a determination that they are right in their plea, for fear they will be sued by the City in which they live, work, pay taxes, raise their children, support their schools, and so on.

I wonder if the ACLU, which sued the City over a Freedom of Information action, and won, also sued for its expenses ... you know, to "teach a lesson."

Posted by Gadflygirl at 08:41 PM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2004

Cool City, Not So Cool Use of Grant Money

I really reeled at the thought of our Cool Cities Grant being used essentially for the expenses of the Chamber of Commerce. So glad was I when it was reported in today's Record Eagle that the money has been withdrawn by the State of Michigan!

Our $100,000 grant would have gone to paying:

∙ $40,000 in rent and utilities (on behalf of whom?)
∙ $15,000 in furnishings (for whom?)
∙ $10,000 for creating a "business resource center" (meaning what?)
∙ $10,000 in technology and equipment purchases (for whose use?)
∙ $10,000 for construction finish work (oh, really?)
∙ $10,000 for creating a public art project (remember the last one?)
∙ $ 5,000 for marketing (marketing what?)

It seems to me that the $10,000 for a public art project is a bone tossed to the citizens of Traverse City in exchange for paying the expenses of the new Chamber building (which rents the land on which it stand for $1.00 year).

Here are other communities' uses of the Cool Cities Grant:

Saginaw: Redevelop two vacant buildings into 1st floor commercial & residential uses.

Kalamazoo: Move Smartshop, a unique metalworking school, gallery, and sculpture garden to a new location. The business community adjacent to the new location will add a clustering of gathering places, advancing mixed use, neighborhood intrinsic, pedestrian friendly development that enhances culture, community, and economic development.

Grand Rapids: The Avenue of the Arts Project includes the historic renovation of seven buildings, streetscape improvement along with creation of public art, murals, and development of 35 loft apartments.

Marquette: Project consists of groomed, refrigerated ice plaza, with a skating rink, warming house, walking/bike trail, and fountain, located near the heart of the city, and the site of a former parking lot and railroad trestle.

Sault Ste. Marie: Soo Theatre Project plans to restore and renovate the classic and historic Soo Theatre Complex to its original grandeur of the 1930s.

Our original use of the Cool Cities Grant is tantamount to giving it to the Cherry Festival for their new offices … perhaps some new office equipment, furniture, or outdoor sprinkler system. Or maybe give it to Bart's Texas Barbeque on the ground floor of the Parking Structure, since it is having a difficult time paying rent to the DDA. Oh yes, that's right … they received some sort of special payment consideration at the last City Commission meeting.

So uncool.

Posted by Gadflygirl at 06:02 AM | Comments (0)