City ordered to pay residents’ attorney fees

Boulder City must pay approximately $180,000 to six residents by July 5 after the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the city wrongly sued them after the residents circulated ballot initiative petitions in 2010.

The $180,000 will cover attorney fees and the cost of the lawsuit, said former Boulder City Councilwoman Linda Strickland, who represented the six residents in the case along with her husband, Tracy.

“I think it played out the only logical way it could’ve played out,” she said on the ruling. “These people had their First Amendment rights violated.”

The city sued Daniel Jensen, Walt Rapp, Frank Fisher, Cynthia Harris, Nancy Nolette and James Douglass after they drafted, circulated and submitted initiative petitions to place questions on the November 2010 ballot.

The city sued to challenge the legality of three initiatives, which limited city debt, established term limits for volunteer committees and prevented the city from owning more than one golf course. City staff believed the initiatives overstepped the city’s administrative authority and that naming the petitioners in a lawsuit was the only way to have a court examined the initiatives.

The city filed three separate lawsuits in three different courtrooms against the residents.

The petitioners, however, argued in District Court that the city’s lawsuits were strategic lawsuits against public participation, filed in an effort to silence them.

“Our cities generally bend over backward to protect our First Amendment rights, but Boulder City is an exception,” Strickland said.

The city, represented by law firm Lionel Sawyer &Collins, successfully argued at the District Court level in Clark County that it had the right to sue the petitioners to challenge the initiatives.

The Supreme Court overturned the rulings of three District Court judges, ruling that the city’s lawsuits were SLAPPs and the city could have challenged the initiatives by naming the secretary of state or another government entity as a defendant.

The defendants’ case was aided by the state Legislature amending Nevada’s anti-SLAPP statute in 2013, providing clarity about defendants’ immunity from civil actions.

Each of the three District Courts originally denied the special motions to dismiss under various grounds, but Judge Susan Scann sanctioned the city for the lawsuits.

On June 5, Judge Allen Earl signed the order that forces the city to pay the $180,000 no later than July 5.

City Attorney Dave Olsen said the city plans to file a motion for reconsideration of paying attorney fees. He said he knows the city will have to pay attorney fees, but believes the court is charging more than what is due.

Despite the winning outcome for her clients, Strickland said the entire process insinuates a growing problem that Boulder City’s elected officials don’t want public participation in local government.

“They say they invite participation, but when people apply in the form of citizen initiation they (the people) get sued,” she said. “They (Boulder City elected officials) feel our government should be a republic, not a democracy. Participation in Boulder City has come to a halt, and it has a chilling effect because of what happens when you sue citizens for participating in the democratic process.”

Olsen disagreed, saying that the city did nothing to prevent the residents from circulating petitions or collecting signatures for them. The items even reached the ballot, he added, and noted that the city filed the lawsuits after the election.

“The debt limitation initiative is now law in Boulder City, and the term limits for volunteers is now law within Boulder City,” Olsen said. “What did we do to interfere?”

Olsen said Strickland’s claim that Boulder City discourages public participation was a very emotional argument.

“I don’t get that at all,” he said. “The voters got their chance to vote, and everybody got their right to petition government. They (the residents) did everything they did without any interference from the city.”

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