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  • Ledger-Independent

    City of Vanceburg facing litigation

    By Hayley Adkins [email protected],

    2024-04-14

    VANCEBURG — Janet Farrow, a resident of Vanceburg, has filed a lawsuit against the city after she alleged the city blocked her from the city’s Facebook page.

    According to court documents, the “City of Vanceburg” Facebook page is open to the public and members of the community are encouraged to interact.

    The plaintiff (Farrow) claims that the city blatantly disregarded her first amendment rights when she was blocked from viewing and accessing the page after she “expressed critical viewpoints”.

    Farrow asked Mayor Dane Blankenship and the Vanceburg City Council questions regarding a perceived oversight of the mandated ethics board. Farrow felt that the mayor and the contractor had a conflict of interest.

    Shortly after Farrow spoke her opinions about the ethics board, she was blocked from viewing the Facebook page, court documents stated.

    Court documents state thatthe “City of Vanceburg” Facebook page is linked to the official website for the city which is www.cityofvanceburg.com and the page has the Vanceburg city seal at the top and states that it is “[t]he official Facebook Fan Page of the City of Vanceburg.” The page also states “[w]e reserve the right to remove or moderate any and all posts.”

    The about me section states the page “was created to benefit the citizens of our small town. With the rise in social networking, fans can use the power of Facebook to receive updates on city events, community outreach and local business.”

    The Facebook contact number is the city’s official phone number and the email associated with the page belongs to the Vanceburg City Clerk Greta May at [email protected] .

    The Facebook page distributes a wealth of information such as details about community events, government programs and matters of public concern.

    The City of Vanceburg’s Facebook page allows the public to make favorable comments.

    On Sept. 18, 2023, at 11:44 a.m. Farrow reached out to May via email to ask why she had been blocked from the City’s Facebook page. The Defendant did not respond to the email and continued to keep Farrow blocked.

    Some of the complaints listed under count 1 include:

    - Defendant intended to create a public forum when it opened the “official” City of Vanceburg Facebook page and allowed members of the public to use the page’s interactive features to comment on issues of public concern.

    - Defendant’s Facebook page is a tool of governance to inform the public about matters of public concern.

    - The Facebook Page explains that it is the “official” page of the City of Vanceburg.

    - Defendant empowers the clerk with the power to operate and moderate the Facebook page.

    - Defendant blocked Farrow because she was critical of Defendant and its Mayor.

    - The blocking of Farrow was according to Defendant’s policy and an action of Defendant’s final decision maker.

    - Defendant applied unconstitutional prior restraints to chill and silence Farrow’s criticisms because Defendant does not agree with or want to listen to Farrow’s viewpoints.

    - Defendant’s actions and prior restraints are viewpoint-based and violate the First Amendment.

    - By blocking Farrow from the Facebook Page, Defendant violated her First Amendment Right to access information.

    - The information on the Facebook page is not accessible elsewhere.

    - Farrow is entitled to all damages including attorney’s fees, nominal damages, compensatory damages, injunctive relief, declaratory relief, and other damages as permissible under law.

    Some of the complaints listed under count two include:

    - Defendant’s speech policies are so vague that no reasonable objective person could determine what speech was allowed in the comment section of the Facebook Page.

    - The Facebook speech regulations are facially vague and overbroad.

    According to court documents, Farrow is requesting the court issue judgement in her favor on all counts and award her with the following; a declaration that the city’s actions violated her first amendment rights, compensatory damages, nominal damages, injunctive relief precluding the defendant from restraining Farrow’s speech, order monetary damages for violating Farrow’s civil rights, an award of reasonable attorney fees, litigation costs and expenses and any other actual damages or equitable relief the court deems fit under the circumstances.

    Farrow demands a jury on all triable issues.

    Blankenship said that because this is an ongoing suit he cannot comment.

    This was not the first complaint Farrow had filed against the City of Vanceburg.

    On June 23, 2023, Farrow submitted a request to the city for contact information and names of the Board of Ethics members and “documentation showing when they were appointed and their designated term limits.”

    When the City responded on July 5, 2023, they informed Farrow that no such records were in their possession.

    After receiving this correspondence, Farrow submitted a second request to the city asking for a copy of the mayor’s “Statement of Financial Interest” which is required to be filed pursuant to local ordinance.

    When Farrow did not receive a response, she initiated an appeal.

    The Kentucky Open Records Act is a collection of laws that gives the public access to public records of government bodies at all levels.

    The Open Records Decision that Farrow filed against the City of Vanceburg was as follows.

    “Upon receiving a request for records under the Act, a public agency “shall determine within five (5) [business] days… after the receipt of any such request whether to comply with the request and shall notify in writing the person making the request, within the five (5) day period, of its decision.”

    The city did admit that it failed to respond in a timely fashion to Farrow’s second request, according to the ruling by the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

    The Farrow lawsuit is also not the first lawsuit the City of Vanceburg has faced in recent years.

    Carey Highfield, a former police officer with the Vanceburg Police Department, filed a lawsuit against the city. That lawsuit ended in 2022.

    According to court documents, Highfield served as an officer for the Vanceburg City Police Department first as a patrolman in May of 1996, where he remained for several months before leaving to pursue other career paths.

    In May of 2019, Highfield applied a second time where his application was kept on file for a year.

    The department had advertised there was a potential for two police officer recruits to be hired in the summer of 2020. Highfield reached out to Police Chief Joseph Billman about the job, court documents stated.

    According to the lawsuit, the mayor offered Highfield a part-time position after going through the interview process despite Billman’s objection that he “didn’t want to deal with [Highfield] again.”

    Highfield maintained that he was promised to be promoted to full-time after the retirement of another officer which they anticipated happening around the end of 2020, however, Blankenship and Billman both denied making any such promise.

    Highfield was not the only person offered a job. Blankenship also extended offers to Brett Lee (26) and Zach Prater (31). Lee began working full-time for the Department after graduating from the police academy in Dec. 2021.

    Prater began working full-time after his police academy graduation in Sept. 2021.

    Highfield had completed the same police academy training in 1996 but did have a few certifications that needed to be updated that he was working toward obtaining, according to documents.

    Highfield was enrolled in several online training courses to assist in updating his certifications as Chief Billman explained that he would not consider Highfield for full-time employment without them.

    Highfield completed one course in November 2020, the lawsuit said.

    When Highfield discovered that Lee and Prater had been offered potential full-time offers and he had not, he wrote a letter to the mayor, the police chief, and the city council to request consideration for the available full-time position saying that he would be able to adequately do said job “as long as [he] receive[s] Basic Officer Skills, Penal Code Update, And [sic] Constitutional Procedures within (1) year from hire date.”

    According to the lawsuit, Highfield claims that when he asked Billman about the letter on Jan. 15, Billman responded that Highfield would no longer have a position with the department once “the young guys get out of the academy.”

    Both Billman and Blankenship denied ever receiving Highfield’s letter and insisted they did not become aware of its existence until after the lawsuit was filed.

    On Jan. 15, Highfield discussed his request for the full-time position with Blankenship.

    Highfield claims he calmly asked the mayor what he thought about the letter and its request for a full-time position to which Blankenship responded “[y]ou was [sic] never going to be full-time.”

    Highfield asked Blankenship why the city would spend $8 thousand a piece to send new people to the academy when someone like him had already gone through the academy.

    To emphasize his point, he gestured to his academy pin which was on his shirt.

    In the lawsuit, Highfield alleged that Blankenship responded by saying “[w]e need younger help. Look at us. I could die tomorrow. You could die tomorrow.”

    Blankenship’s accounts of the events of the evening are very different.

    Blankenship alleges Highfield “became visibly upset, aggressively leaned over the mayor’s desk” and “pound[ed] his chest and badge while demanding a promotion to full-time status.”

    The city’s motion mentions that Highfield was on duty which means he was carrying a gun which Highfield did confirm to be true. Blankenship denied saying Highfield “could die tomorrow” and further denied making any comment about Highfield’s age, the lawsuit said.

    Deposition testimony regarding the confrontation stated that Highfield was observed in a standing position poking himself in the chest in an agitated manner.

    It was noted that the mayor appeared to be shaken up and distressed but the witness was not present for the entirety of the exchange. The incident was not reported to Billman until the following Monday.

    Highfield met with Vanceburg City Council member Roger Jahn the next day to discuss the conversation between Highfield and Blankenship. Highfield claims he told Jahn he wanted to contact the EEOC about the alleged discrimination.

    According to court documents, Jahn disagrees with this representation claiming that Highfield never mentioned that he had been a victim of unlawful discrimination or that he had planned to file a complaint with the EEOC.

    Jahn instead contends that he learned about the action Highfield took against the department one week later when Blankenship told Jahn that Highfield had been fired.

    Highfield submitted an inquiry online to the EEOC on Jan. 17, 2021.

    Highfield stated he felt he was discriminated against when the department hired two younger guys for full-time jobs while he was only hired for part-time work.

    The mayor testified that he met with Billman to discuss the Jan. 15 incident on Jan. 18 and ultimately that led to his decision to terminate Highfield.

    The letter Highfield received informing him of his dismissal did not disclose a reason for his termination.

    He was instead told by the city attorney when he called for an explanation that he was not terminated for any specific reason, his services were simply no longer required.

    Highfield first learned that the department fired him because of his alleged aggressive behavior when the city responded to his EEOC complaint.

    “The EEOC dismissed Highfield’s complaint but issued a right to file a civil action against the city. The plaintiff filed this action soon thereafter. Highfield’s complaint contains two counts against the City of Vanceburg. In his Amended Complaint, Highfield asserts: (1) that the defendant violated his rights under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act by “bypassing the plaintiff for a promotion to a full-time officer position, while instead promoting substantially younger, less qualified police officers…and [by] terminating [Highfield’s] employment based on his age”; and (2) that the defendant unlawfully fired him in retaliation for his “pursuing a claim of discrimination,” also in violation of the ADEA and KCRA,” the lawsuit stated.

    The legal analysis states that Highfield first asserts “the City engaged in unlawful discrimination when the department “bypassed[d] [him] for a promotion to a full-time police officer position, while instead promoting substantially younger, less qualified police officers to full-time police officer positions and terminating [his] employment based on his age.”

    The summary judgement was granted in part and denied in part.

    According to the judgment, Highfield established genuine issue of fact regarding his claims of discrimination when he was offered a part-time position while full-time conditional offers were extended to two younger recruits.

    Highfield also provided “sufficient evidence to meet his present burden to demonstrate that Highfield’s stated reason for terminating his employment was pre-textual.”

    Highfield, however, failed to prove that Blankenship knew of his EEOC complaint at the time of his firing which meant that the city’s motion for summary judgement was granted regarding Highfield’s retaliation claim, the lawsuit further stated.

    Farrow and Highfield were unable to make comments about their lawsuits at this time.

    Regarding the Highfield lawsuit, Blankenship said, “that lawsuit was settled without…you know…there was no judgement made on it. It was settled through the insurance company.”

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