FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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Kansas City, Mo. – The ACLU Foundation of Kansas today announced that, in a court order dated Monday, November 18, 2013, Federal District Judge Scott O. Wright approved the settlement of a threatened ACLU voting rights and First Amendment lawsuit against the Benton County Sewer District No. 1.
In January 2013, the Sewer District announced that it would hold an election for a seat on its board of trustees, and the District's board president certified to the Benton County Clerk the names of the two candidates, Robert Vedder and John Grate, who had filed for the election.
In April 2013, Mr. Vedder was elected to the board by a one vote margin. Because Mr. Vedder had been a vocal critic of the members of the board and the District itself, however, the board repeatedly refused to seat him as a member of the board. In June, moreover, the board actually seated the losing candidate in the open seat that was the subject of the election in April.
The ACLU agreed to represent Mr. Vedder and a voter, Robert Geranis, in a lawsuit against the District on the theory that refusing to seat Mr. Vedder because of his political speech violated Mr. Vedder's First Amendment right to free speech and Mr. Geranis's right to vote.
Because the District is currently subject to a Federal Court receivership, the ACLU began settlement negotiations with the receiver in July. The parties reached a tentative settlement agreement earlier this Fall, which was subject to Federal Court approval.
Now, the settlement agreement approved by the Federal Court guarantees that Mr. Vedder will be seated on the District's board of trustees, will credit him with over $1700.00 in sewer fee payments, and will release a lien the District placed on his property. In addition, the settlement agreement provides that the District will comply with Missouri law in filling any future vacancies on the board of trustees.
"Political speech and the right to vote are at the core of the Constitution's protections for our Democracy. When a governmental body decides to ignore the will of the voters by refusing to seat a duly elected candidate, our democratic form of government is imperiled," said Doug Bonney, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of Kansas. "Nearly fifty years ago, the Supreme Court held that the Georgia Legislature violated the First Amendment's Speech Clause when it refused to seat Julian Bond as a member of the Legislature because of his anti-war speech."