CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report originally appeared online May 7 and in print May 12. That report failed to adequately represent the allegations in the lawsuit. It also incorrectly listed the affiliation of one of the attorneys, Richard C. Reuben, of the University of Missouri School of Law, who assisted Joseph Dow Sheppard III and Christiaan D. Horton in representing the plaintiffs. Because of these deficiencies, we have prepared a new version of the report.
The city of Springfield agreed to pay $225,000 to settle a lawsuit after the city council repealed a citizen-backed ordinance that would have decriminalized marijuana possession.
In 2012, advocates collected enough signatures on petitions that would have prohibited jail time for first- or second-time offenders caught with up to 35 grams of marijuana. The offense would have instead drawn fines, community service and drug education.
Under the Springfield charter, the city council was supposed to either approve the proposed changes or put them to a public vote. The council approved the ordinance but rescinded it a few weeks later.
According to the city, some council members were concerned about the legality of the language in the petition. The council said it passed the ordinance intending to amend it but couldn’t agree on new language, so the ordinance was repealed.
The backers of the petition alleged that the council never intended to allow the marijuana ordinance to go into effect. They filed a federal lawsuit in 2013, accusing the council of “subverting the purpose and intent of the initiative process.” The suit alleged violations of the constitutional rights of free speech and due process.
An attorney for the plaintiffs, Joseph Dow Sheppard III, of Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell & Brown, said in an interview that the Springfield charter doesn’t specifically bar the council from doing what it did, but he added that it was clear the council hadn’t handled the ordinance in good faith.
“If they can do that, then the citizens’ petition rights are meaningless,” Sheppard said.
During court-ordered mediation, the parties reached a $225,000 settlement. According to the city, the settlement was based on the potential cost of defense.
“Given the complexity of the litigation and the amount of time both parties have put into prosecuting and defending the claim, our insurance representatives felt it was in the best interest of all parties to end this costly endeavor, through a settlement,” City Attorney Dan Wichmer said in a statement.
Rachel A. Riso, an attorney with Baird Lightner Millsap who helped the city negotiate the settlement, referred a reporter to the city’s statement.
The city said its general fund will cover $50,000, and insurance will cover $175,000. The city did not admit fault. Sheppard, however, said he thinks the relatively large size of the settlement indicates that the city will respect the initiative petition process in the future.
“We don’t think the city will try this tactic ever again,” Sheppard said.
Venue: U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri
Case number/Date: 6:13-cv-03288/April 15, 2014
Judge: Beth Phillips
Caption: Maranda A. Reynolds d/b/a Springfield Cannabis Regulation, Show-Me Cannabis Regulation Inc. and American Victory Coalition Inc. v. City of Springfield, Bob Stephens, Cindy Rushefsky, Craig Fishel, Craig Hosmer, Doug Burlison, Jeff Seifried, Jerry Compton, John Rush, Mike Carroll, Tom Bieker and Jan Fisk
Plaintiffs’ attorneys: Joseph Dow Sheppard III and Christiaan D. Horton, Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell & Brown, Springfield; Richard C. Reuben, University of Missouri School of Law, Columbia
Defendant’s attorneys: Rachel A. Riso and Tina G. Fowler, Baird Lightner Millsap, Springfield; Daniel R. Wichmer, city attorney, Springfield