Four Eastpointe residents filed a federal lawsuit against the mayor and the city this week saying the mayor is abusing her power and silencing her critics, even cutting them off during public comment at a September meeting that ended abruptly when the other council members got up and left.
Mary Hall-Rayford, Karen Beltz, Karen Mouradjian and Cynthia Federle filed the lawsuit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit against Mayor Monique Owens and the city. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, filed the lawsuit on their behalf.
“It concerned us in terms of suppression of the First Amendment rights of these four women. They were interested in having their mayor not censor them,” said Conor Fitzpatrick, an attorney with the foundation.
Owens had no comment Thursday. The Free Press left messages for the Eastpointe city attorney seeking comment.
More:Eastpointe elects first black mayor; selects 2 council members under new voting method
More:Macomb County results: Hackel wins 4th term as executive; GOP keeps commission majority
Dispute linked to Cruisin’ on Gratiot incident
Fitzpatrick said a preliminary injunction was filed Thursday asking the court, in essence, to prevent Owens from suppressing criticism while the lawsuit proceeds.
He said the plaintiffs are challenging what Owens is doing and the council’s rule under the First Amendment.
“When you’re asserting your federal rights, the proper place to do that is a federal court,” he said.
Len Niehoff, a professor at the University of Michigan law school, said if a state entity — and that includes a municipality or city — violates the First or Fourteenth Amendment, that raises a federal question and federal courts have jurisdiction. He had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on its merits.
The situation dates back to June and a dispute between Owens and City Councilman Harvey Curley at the Cruisin’ Gratiot car show, of which Curley is the longtime chairman. Curley, 85, a former mayor of the city, got upset that Owens spoke at the opening ceremonies.
Ex-mayor’s behavior was ‘childish and inappropriate’
Owens said Curley put his hands in front of her face and cursed at her, causing her to fear for her safety, according to a petition for a personal protection order she filed against him. She also filed a police report. Curley was never arrested or charged, according to the lawsuit.
A hearing on Owens’ petition was held in August in Macomb County Circuit Court. A circuit judge wrote in a September opinion that Curley’s behavior was “childish and extremely inappropriate,” but denied Owens’ request for a personal protection order.
At the Sept. 6 City Council meeting, which is available to watch on YouTube, Hall-Rayford and Beltz tried to speak up for Curley during the public comment period, but Owens repeatedly interrupted and shouted them down, according to the lawsuit, claiming the discussion of the dispute would “revictimize” her.
It states Owens yelled at Beltz, a 40-year-plus resident who had never spoken at a council meeting before, when Beltz said she found the claims against Curley “outrageous.” Owens cut her off, saying: “You’re not going to sit here and assault me, lady I never met!”
The lawsuit claims the city attorney told Owens that members of the public have “free rein” to discuss whatever topics they choose, but Owens ignored his advice.
It also states that Mouradjian, who often speaks about animal rights, used her public comments to speak against Owens’ behavior toward Hall-Rayford and Beltz.
“But Mayor Owens shouted Ms. Mouradjian down, too. After Ms. Mouradjian protested that Mayor Owens was trampling on Eastpointers’ First Amendment rights, the mayor belittled Ms. Mouradjian, telling her she could ‘talkabout your cats and your dogs in the community but you won’t talk about me,'” according to the lawsuit.
More:Michigan Democrats take control of state House, Senate in historic power shift
More:Here’s the punishment for Warren councilman who handcuffed woman over BLM stickers
Shortly after that exchange, council members started to get up and leave meeting, leaving Owens sitting by herself at the council table.
The lawsuit also states that in March, Owens “forced” Federle “to alter her remarks to omit criticism of the Mayor and to criticize ‘the council’ or ‘the body’ instead.”
“Eastpointers should not have to endure these constant attacks on their First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit states, adding that the women are seeking to stop Owens’ “abuse of authority.”
“Through Mayor Owens, the City of Eastpointe maintains a pattern, practice or custom during the ‘Hearing of the Public’ portion of City Council meetings of prohibiting direct criticism of Mayor Owens, permitting direct praise of Mayor Owens, and permitting direct criticism of other City Council members.”
Contact Christina Hall: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to the Free Press.