Then-Councilor Freddy Rodriguez reads a prepared statement in 20201 responding to an ongoing protest by former councilor Marty Justus during council meetings. (The Enterprise/FILE)
ONTARIO – Former Ontario City Councilor Marty Justus will receive more than $28,000 from the city to settle a potential lawsuit regarding allegations he was defamed last year by two city leaders and his First Amendment rights were violated.
The Ontario City Council approved the settlement on a unanimous vote during its April 12 regular meeting.
Under the terms of the agreement the city’s insurance – Citycounty Insurance Services – will pay $14,000 of the settlement. Former city attorney Larry Sullivan’s professional liability insurance will pay $14,000.
According to the settlement, “This agreement is not an admission by any party of any labiality or wrongdoing whatsoever to the other parties and will not be used as evidence of liability or wrongdoing on the part of a party.”
Justus said Friday that the city faced other choices other than the $28,000 settlement.
“They had the option of issuing an apology or making a donation to a charity of my choice. They chose not to do that,” said Justus.
The settlement caps on a saga that began with two separate incidents that occurred in the spring 2021 that put Justus at odds with Mayor Riley Hill and then-City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez.
Attorney Ted Reuter, representing Justus, notified the city in a letter last May that Justus was demanding the city repudiate criminal allegations against him and “cease and desist from making these allegations.”
Reuter notified the city that Justus might sue for violations of his civil rights and cost the city up to $1 million.
The notice focused on the conduct of Rodriguez who said during a session of the Ontario City Council in April 2021 that he believed Justus – who is gay - was a child molester. The allegation was never proven.
Voters subsequently recalled Rodriguez from his council seat.
Reuter’s notice also said that Hill “directed or urged” a police investigation that produced “no evidence of any criminal conduct.” The notice asserted the mayor helped Rodriguez make the allegations.
The notice also singled out the rest of the city council, including Eddie Melendrez, John Kirby, Sam Baker, Michael Braden and Ken Hart. “Every member of city council is fully aware that Mr. Rodriguez has continued to press his absurd, homophobic, retaliatory and false allegations,” the notice said. “It has continued to allow him to make false and defamatory statements during its meetings and in other forums while identifying himself as a representative of the city.”
The settlement also focused on a second incident that occurred May 18, 2021, when Justus was escorted out of a city council meeting after he displayed a sign that questioned Hill’s sobriety.
At the meeting, Sullivan said the sign which questioned the mayor’s sobriety was a personal attack and was disruptive.
The council then voted unanimously for Justus’ eviction. When Justus indicated that he wouldn’t stop showing the signs, then-Police Chief Steve Romero asked him to leave. Sullivan told the Enterprise after the incident that Justus’s signs were insulting and derogatory.
However, the legality of the move was questioned by several legal scholars who pointed out removing Justus could have violated his First Amendment rights.
Kyu Ho Youm, the Jonathan Marshall First Amendment Chair at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, said that in the U.S. individuals can say almost anything against the government. He said that at a city meeting, the mayor represents that government.
“There is a difference between derogatory and defamatory content. The city attorney is walking a fine line by attempting to regulate what you can say towards officials,” said Youm.
Brown said there were lessons to be learned from the saga, especially regarding the eviction of Justus from the council session.
“I think we wouldn’t do that a second time. The council was acting on the advice of its attorney that said his behavior constituted a reason for him to leave. They then escorted him out. But decisions have consequences,” he said.
Justus said settlement wasn’t really a victory or a vindication but a statement about individual rights and discrimination.
“They (the city council) didn’t want to stand up for a gay guy. Are they going to stand up for the Hispanic guy? Or the woman? Nobody on the council did,” said Justus.
Justus said the city’s decision to settle “means they were wrong.”
“If they were right they wouldn’t have settled,” said Justus.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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