Wapakoneta case on free speech worth watching

Government workers everywhere should be observing closely a federal case involving Wapakoneta, Ohio.

Last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District rejected a legal filing by Fire Chief Kendall Krites and Safety Services Director William Rains in Wapakoneta, seeking to throw out a First Amendment retaliation claim by Tom Stinebaugh, a former Wapakoneta fire captain.

Stinebaugh sued the city, claiming he was unfairly terminated for voicing his opposition to three council members about Krites’ plans to purchase a replacement firetruck. In court documents, Krites blames the demotion and eventual firing after the January 2012 incident on his disobeying department rules.

The case will continue, the judges ruled.

“Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Stinebaugh,” Judge Eugene Siler wrote, “a reasonable jury could find that Krites played an influential role in Stinebaugh’s demotion and termination and that his actions violated Stinebaugh’s First Amendment rights.”

Juicing up the case a bit is the fact that in November, the people of Wapakoneta elected Stinebaugh as their new mayor. That’s right, the man set to lead Wapakoneta starting in January is also suing the city. He’s said he’d accept a $200,000 settlement in back pay, or about $50,000 a year of the $80,000 annual salary he had when he was fired, as long as he was given credit for 25 years of service so he could receive a full pension.

Meanwhile, Krites plans to retire at the end of the year. Rains retired Monday. So the only person still intricately involved in the case, Stinebaugh, can’t ethically provide any input to council, since the case affects him directly.

We always urge government bodies to be vigilant in following the rules. We beg them to err on the side of sunshine, so the taxpayers can see what they’re doing and understand why.

Cases like this remind you of the dangers of anything that could even be perceived as persecuting someone who disagreed with you.

The appellate court’s decision is a victory for people in favor of free speech.

We need people voicing their opinion, especially when they disagree with the people in charge. Working for a governmental organization shouldn’t silence you from saying what you think is right or wrong. It’s up to the people elected to make the decision whether to heed your advice or not, not up to a supervisor to try to silence you.

Now it’s up to a district court to hear the evidence on the case and make a wise decision. As is often the case in these matters, it gets complicated. It’s not like Wapakoneta openly fired Stinebaugh for airing the fire department’s dirty laundry. He was fired for leaving a call about a fire limb to attend to a crash on Interstate 75.

There’s some question as to whether he supervisor on duty authorized him to go to the crash or not. Krites asserts he wasn’t, so he violated department guidelines by leaving the scene where he’d been dispatched.

Whatever the outcome, this case will have some interesting outcomes for Wapakoneta. If Stinebaugh gets his old job back, he can’t serve as both mayor and fire captain at the same time. And few cities have enough money laying around to make a large settlement not hurt day-to-day functions at least a little bit.

Indeed, this is a case for local governments to watch and learn.

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