Demoted fireman files federal suit over city action|[12/8/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 8, 2005

The Vicksburg firefighter demoted and suspended in August following a letter to the editor critical of Mayor Laurence Leyens has filed a federal lawsuit against the city.

James Montgomery, a 16-year veteran, wrote a letter printed in The Vicksburg Post in April criticizing Leyens’ administration for voting pay raises for department heads but not all employees. Municipal elections were in May and June.

Montgomery closed his letter by stating, &#8220I sincerely hope that the next mayor will be more considerate of his employees when he takes office…the present administration will not receive my vote.”

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Montgomery’s suit also says District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon, who was Democratic nominee for mayor invited Montgomery to breakfast several days after the letter appeared, and that Fire Chief Keith Rogers confronted Montgomery about attending. After Leyens was re-elected, Rogers sent Montgomery a letter that stated, according to the suit, &#8220Montgomery deliberately misled the citizens of Vicksburg by making false statements.”

Leyens and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, who was also re-elected, agreed on Aug. 4 with Rogers’ suggestion to demote Montgomery from captain to lieutenant and impose a two-shift suspension for willful misconduct and insubordination under the Mississippi civil service law, passed in 1972, which provides that, &#8220if any person holding any office, position or employment subject to civil service ‘actively participates’ in political activity in any primary or election in a municipality where he is employed, it shall be deemed cause for removal.”

The city’s Civil Service Commission upheld the city’s punishment. An appeal to Warren County Circuit Court was possible, but was not filed. Instead, the suit seeking damages, including punitive damages, was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. No hearing date has been set.

&#8220I feel like the City of Vicksburg has unjustly demoted me and suspended me because I chose to exercise my constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech,” Montgomery said Wednesday. &#8220I’m going to fight this case even if it goes all the way to the United States Supreme Court.”

Montgomery is represented by Jackson attorney Lisa Ross. Walterine Langford, associate attorney for the city, said Wednesday the city had not yet received notice of the suit.

Leyens responded that Montgomery’s letter attempted to sway the outcome of an election, which he believes violates the state law prohibiting civil employees from political speech.

&#8220His letter to the editor was in violation of the civil service law verbatim,” said Leyens, who is out of town and said he was not aware of the lawsuit. &#8220It very specifically says that (civil servants) are not to be engaged in the political process.”

The actions against Montgomery could have been stronger, Leyens said.

&#8220Our attorneys advised us very strongly that we should respond strongly to avoid a precedent. We actually could have terminated him for this,” Leyens said. &#8220But because he’s a long-tenured employee, we didn’t want to lose him.”

Montgomery’s suit alleges that the Mississippi civil service law is &#8220unconstitutional as it is vague and ambiguous since it does not define what active participation is” and because it &#8220limits (Montgomery’s) ability to assert his constitutional rights, such as … freedom of association and freedom to engage in political speech and activity.” The statute’s language does not, the suit continues, restrict a municipal employee from writing a letter to the editor and should not be grounds for demotion.

&#8220If he’s filed a lawsuit, so be it,” said Leyens. &#8220He’s got no case in my opinion.”