Gag Me with a Suit!

Exercising rights in Seabrook can land you in court

Members of the Seabrook city government may be among the most thin-skinned municipal officers in Texas history. Last month the town fathers filed a libel suit against five activists, charging that a recall petition that sought to remove them from office was slanderous.

As libel goes, the accusations were rather milquetoast. According to the suit filed by Mayor Robert Robinson and Councilmembers Larry Lane, Robert Arnold and Jerry Larsen, the activists opposing the port's Bayport Project maligned their good names simply by accusing them of having a possible conflict of interest between their official duties and personal business affairs.

David Waddell, the attorney for the recall organizers, says the suit is a transparent attempt to bully his clients into dropping the petition. He claims an attorney for the Seabrook officials called several of the defendants to offer to dismiss the litigation as soon as they discontinued the effort to get the mayor and councilmembers thrown out of office.

Culture clash: Vasquez's favorite color is white...
Culture clash: Vasquez's favorite color is white...
...while Navarro's allies prefer banditas.
...while Navarro's allies prefer banditas.

"The right to petition our government is one of the oldest and most basic freedoms given to Americans," says Waddell. He accused the city's elected officers of trying to "chill the democratic process."

Officials did not respond to an Insider request for interviews, and after several rounds of phone tag, their attorney Rick Morris was unavailable for comment.

The recall effort was sparked by the Seabrook City Council negotiations with the Port Authority of Houston on a contract for the authority's Bayport Project. The Port won the bond issue election last month to fund the project and is pushing ahead with plans to expand terminal facilities and infrastructure.

Seabrook contract negotiations cover several issues: the right of the Port to exercise eminent domain in Seabrook -- to condemn land -- to build a rail line, Seabrook surrendering the right to sue the Port, and the formula for funding a water treatment plant to service Bayport. A draft of the proposed contract has been circulated, provoking the ire of opponents.

The recall petition cites the officials' failure to give proper notice of meetings, negotiations and concessions made by Seabrook to the Port of Houston, as well as the forced resignation of the city's environmental lawyer, Jim Blackburn. The seventh item in the list of grounds for removal from office -- the possible conflict of interest -- sparked the libel suit.

In court papers, the officials claim they have "endured shame, embarrassment and humiliation" as a result of the recall petitions. They want damages in excess of $50,000 from the defendants, Elaine Douglass, Christopher Green, Joan Mitchell, Susanne Decker and Melissa Sutherland.

If the aim of the suit was to derail the petitions, it failed. Douglass says organizers presented the city secretary with 560 signatures, including 520 confirmed registered voters. The city requires 457 valid signatures to trigger the recall ordinance.

Defendants in the libel suit are relying on insurance policies and community contributions to pay their legal bills. Douglass figures the litigation is just an extension of the Seabrook council's disregard for the opinions of their constituents.

"After everything I've seen, I'm not surprised. It appears that they will do anything as fast as possible to get this contract signed," says Douglass.

"This contract with the Port is our big issue -- it's a very, very bad contract, and it will end up hurting Seabrook. We want the citizens to be able to see it before it's signed, to be able to have some input and be able to vote on it. Because it will affect all of us for a long time to come."

Recall prospects are brighter than that of the libel suit. According to Houston libel attorney Joel White, it is likely that the recall petition has the same free speech protections as a court document, which cannot be the basis for slander.

"Anything that's filed with a government agency is generally privileged," explains White. "It doesn't have to be filed with a court. I would say at least a qualified privilege attaches to that."

Government officials who try to mute public criticism with lawsuits are hardly unique, says the attorney, but their prospects for victory are slim or none.

"We deal with that every day. And the fact of the matter is the government officials never win, because of the actual malice standard." To prevail in court, plaintiffs would have to show not only that the material was false, but that it was produced with reckless disregard for the truth.

Even if the suit is frivolous and was filed for petty political reasons, it is very difficult to get a court to make plaintiffs pay their targets' legal fees, says White. Nevertheless, the activists' attorney Waddell expects to launch such an effort.

For a precedent, he might study attorney Rusty Hardin's defense of his favorite restaurant, Ruggles. Its chef-owner posted a sign outside the restaurant in 1996 criticizing a law firm, and the firm retaliated with a libel suit. After the case was dismissed, the judge ordered the firm to pay more than $42,000 in legal fees to Ruggles.

Aside from tagging their opponents with the expense and time of a suit, White figures, the Seabrook officials will gain some satisfaction even if they don't win.

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