Final deal said near in fireman’s federal suit|[08/21/07]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The attorney for a Vicksburg firefighter, who sued after he was suspended and demoted based on a letter written to the editor, said she and her client are &#8220very pleased” with a settlement reached in the case.

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield, who had disagreed with the sanction imposed on Lt. James Montgomery after the 2005 municipal election, said today the settlement is not a done deal and may be discussed more among the Mayor and Aldermen before a vote is taken formally to adopt its terms.

Even when that happens, the public will not be allowed access to any information, including the amount of any monetary damages awarded. Ross and city sources both affirmed an agreement was made to keep the terms confidential in a July 31 session involving U.S. Magistrate James Sumner, Lisa Ross, lead attorney for Montgomery, and attorneys for the city and for the State of Mississippi, which had been added as a codefendant.

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Ross said she would be able to say only that the plaintiff and his attorneys &#8220were very pleased with the settlement.”

Mayor Laurence Leyens said he was notified Monday that a settlement had been reached, but said he did not know the details.

Vicksburg Fire Chief Keith Rogers was also uninformed of the details and said he did not know how it would impact Montgomery’s rank.

A hearing in the case had been scheduled for Monday in U.S. District Court in Natchez. Settlement talks had already picked up pace, however, when U.S. District Judge David C. Bramlette issued a lengthy ruling on the city’s motion for summary judgment. It said, in essence, that the city had not made its case that Montgomery’s rights as a citizen were not violated. Bramlette said the city had made its case on some points of law, but not on others. Leyens said at the time he just wanted the case to &#8220go away.”

In April 2005, Montgomery responded to an earlier letter to the editor in The Vicksburg Post from a Vicksburg resident who had praised Leyens’ handling of employee pay raises.

His letter, which came a month before municipal elections, was critical of the administration for approving pay hikes for department heads but not all employees.

In the letter Montgomery, then a 16-year veteran of the Vicksburg Fire Department, wrote &#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.”

Leyens and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, who were re-elected, voted to suspend Montgomery for two weeks and demote him to captain. They cited a civil service rule against &#8220political activity” for fire and police personnel. In response, Montgomery sued the city and later amended his complaint to add the state, represented in the defense by the Attorney General Jim Hood.

Leyens said part of the reason he was angry about the letter was that it wasn’t true and, further, that Montgomery’s claim about how he would vote was a purposeful attempt to mislead the public because Montgomery is not a municipal resident or a registered city voter.

However, Bramlette ruled July 6 the defendants failed to prove Montgomery’s letter was related to matters of individual desires and interests and did not constitute a matter of public concern.

&#8220The context, form and content of Montgomery’s letter indicate that it was written in his capacity as a citizen,” Bramlette wrote in his decision.

Leyens has also said he’ll seek to have civil service regulations amended to make absolutely clear that civil servants are prohibited from doing what Montgomery did. That action would have to be taken by the Legislature.