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For the week of January 15 - 21, 2003

News

Ketchum, mayor sued for freedom of speech infraction


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

Ketchum and its mayor were named in a lawsuit Monday alleging violation of a former contractorís right to freedom of speech.

Itís the second time in his relatively short tenure with the city that Mayor Ed Simon has been named in a lawsuit stemming from personnel complications at the resort townís city hall.

Steve Linden, a citizen of Ketchum and former Ketchum Police Department computer guru, filed the lawsuit in Fifth District Court in Hailey. In four counts, he is seeking damages "in an amount to be proved at trial but greater than $10,000."

Lindenís lawyer, Cynthia Woolley, said punitive damages might also be forthcoming.

"Itís crystal clear," Woolley said. "The First Amendment protects employees, including independent contractors. Thereís really no question that this was a violation of Steveís First Amendment rights."

For several months, Linden, a self-employed computer networking technician, has been one of Simonís most outspoken critics, most recently in a Dec. 11 letter to the editor of the Idaho Mountain Express that concluded, "I strongly advise the citizens of Ketchum to watch Simonís game and especially keep an eye on the sleeves."

Linden said he showed up at Ketchum City Hall on Dec. 24 to work on the police departmentís computer network and was asked to leave and not return. He had worked on the network for at least the previous five years.

Linden said in a December interview that he believes his dismissal was an act of retribution for his commentaries.

"Letís put it this way: It wasnít for lack of performance," he said. "Iím sure it was retribution."

Simon disagreed, in a separate December interview.

"Itís not retribution. I believe in freedom of speech," Simon said. "I also believe that if you want to criticize someone, you should give them an opportunity to address your concerns first.

"When I found out he was working fixing police department computers, there was certainly a connection. If heís going to undermine my authority without approaching me or asking me to clarify something, I donít want him working in the police department."

Linden said efforts to negotiate an amenable solution with the city have not born fruit.

"Unfortunately, Cynthia (Wooley) has been unable to convince them to reinstate me, for reasons I donít understand," Linden said. "You simply can not allow somebody to get away with this type of ridiculous behavior."

The Ketchum City Council called an emergency executive session Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. to be briefed on the issue. City Attorney Margaret Simms said she could not comment on the lawsuit before that meeting.

Woolley, an employee rights attorney who works for The Roark Law Firm in Hailey, represented former Ketchum Police Chief Cal Nevland and Assistant Police Chief Mike McNeil in a lawsuit brought against Simon and the city last summer, after Simon hired Blaine County Deputy Sheriff Ron Taylor to be the cityís assistant police chief.

That lawsuit was settled out of court, and, ironically, was the catalyst behind Lindenís dissatisfaction with the mayor.

"Iím a taxpayer in Ketchum. I work very hard for my money, and I canít afford to pay people $65,000 for a two-week vacation," Linden said in December, in reference to the settlement paid to Taylor.

 

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