ST. GEORGE – A class-action lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court on Friday against the City of St. George and Mayor Dan McArthur, along with code enforcement officials Jeff Cottam and Malcolm Turner.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of St. George resident Jeff Rowley, follows weeks of negotiations between the city and Rowley’s attorney, Aaron Prisbrey. Negotiations culminated in a closed-session meeting of City Council on Thursday night in which the Council agreed to Prisbrey’s settlement request that the city hold open hearings to examine city code and review each zoning ordinance individually, and weigh whether or not it unnecessarily restricts the rights of property owners. However, before agreeing to Prisbey’s second request, that the city reimburse residents for fines in cases where there is evidence that code enforcement officers entered private property without a search warrant, the council said they wanted time to gather more information about how much money this might entail.
Both parties seemed happy with the results of the meeting on Thursday evening.
“I didn’t believe it until today,” Prisbrey said on Thursday night after the city attorney told him where the Council stood. “Based from the assurances I received from the city attorney, I believe that they are negotiating in good faith.”
Prisbrey, an outspoken critic of McArthur, even had kind words to say about the mayor.
“I think I may have misjudged him,” Prisbrey said. At one point during his meeting with the mayor, Prisbrey said, he saw that McArthur appeared to be sincerely concerned that the city may have wrongfully levied fines against residents. “I could see that this man had a moral compass,” Prisbrey said.
Somehow, negotiations fell apart following a meeting on Friday afternoon between Councilman Gil Almquist and Prisbrey.
“He came into the office to talk to Emily, my secretary, who rents from him,” Prisbrey said yesterday. Almquist then said to him: “You must be pretty disappointed with what happened at the closed-door session.”
He didn’t know what Almquist was talking about, Prisbey said, After hearing the account City Attorney Shawn Guzman had given him of the closed session, Prisbey said that he thought things were moving in a positive direction.
“That’s when he told me,” Prisbrey said, “it wasn’t just the reimbursement that had stalled in the meeting. Almquist said that we were not going to sit down and discuss code enforcement.”
Almquist told him that they had only agreed to “tweak” some of the ordinances, Prisbrey said. Almquist had used the same word to describe the closed-door meeting in an interview with St. George News, the night before.
“We are going to tweak them,” Almquist said. “I don’t feel that the codes are onerous, but they can be tweaked. I don’t like my potatoes without any salt, so if they don’t have salt on them, I don’t send them back. I add salt. I tweak them.”
Prisbrey said that Almquist’s account of what the council had agreed to left him feeling betrayed by Guzman, who had assured him that the Council was serious about reaching a settlement.
“It confirmed that they had no intention of negotiating in good faith,” Prisbrey said. “When I met with the mayor and city manager for an hour-and-a-half on Thursday afternoon, the purpose was to resolve our lawsuit. It’s pretty apparent (from his conversation with Almquist),” he said, “that they never relayed our message to the City Council.”
However, Councilman Jon Pike’s version of what was relayed to the Council aligns with what Prisbrey said that he asked for, although it contradicts what Almquist said had happened.
Pike said that the Council embraced the idea of revamping the city code.
“We very strongly said that we want to begin immediately – right now,” Pike said. “We said we were going to look at each code: what needs to be changed for legal reasons, and what we want to change because some codes aren’t necessary. I think there is considerable support for some serious changes to be made to multiple areas.”
Pike’s representation of what had happened in Thursday night’s closed-door Council session comports with Prisbrey’s account of what the city attorney had told him, just after the session, that had left him optimistic. Why did Pike and Guzman say that the Council had agreed to revamp the city code and to discuss reimbursements, while Almquist presented an entirely different interpretation?
“I didn’t seek him out,” Almquist said. “My comment was that he must not be very happy now that the city hadn’t agreed to blindly write a blank check to refund everyone. That’s what he wanted. He wasn’t going to get that.”
In a conversation with St. George News Friday night, Almquist said that he welcomed the lawsuit against the city.
“If he really wants to sue the city, I say bring it on,” Almquist said. “The fact is that lawyers want to settle things.”
For Almquist, it seemed unlikely that a settlement with Prisbrey was even possible.
“He obviously is the adversary, here,” Almquist said of Prisbrey, “he is unwilling to compromise.”
When asked what he based this assessment of Prisbrey’s character on, Almquist said that he was basing it on things that Prisbrey has said about the city. He couldn’t trust the man who had “used swear words talking about the mayor and city manager,” Almquist said.
Whatever Almquist’s feelings about Prisbrey may have been, the exchange between the two resulted in Prisbrey filing the lawsuit, just hours after Prisbrey had said that he thought a settlement was imminent.
The lawsuit seeks immediate and permanent injunctions prohibiting code enforcement officers from conducting warrantless property searches, and it seeks to require amendment of city ordinances to prohibit code enforcement officers from entering private property unless expressly permitted. It also seeks nominal, compensatory and punitive damages for the Rowleys and any other current or former St. George residents who have paid fines resulting from warrantless property searches. Fines for enforcement violations have been known, in some cases, to reach into the tens-of-thousands of dollars.
As part of the tentative settlement agreement with the city, Prisbrey had agreed to dismiss claims for punitive damages, as well as for costs and attorney’s fees for a legal battle which may last years.
Prisbrey says that it may be some time before the case moves forward. He said that his next step is to begin sorting through records of the over 18,000 code-enforcement violations the city has imposed, and selecting cases in which there is photographic evidence that enforcement officers illegally entered upon private property, so that those property owners may join the class action.
Prisbrey has estimated that there may be as many as 3,600 such cases, based on a sworn statement by enforcement officer Cottam, who estimates that officers enter private property in approximately 20 percent of their investigations. Not all of these cases may have resulted in fines, so it’s still unclear how many people will be listed as plaintiffs in the class action suit, or how much money the city will ultimately be requested to pay back.
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