Former City Councilwoman Joy Stevens has filed a suit against the city of Billings, asking to be reimbursed for the money she spent defending herself from ethics complaints in 2008.
She also seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages against the city for depriving her of the constitutional right to equal protection under the law.
Stevens, who served on the council from Jan. 1, 2006, to Oct. 6, 2008, and ran unsuccessfully for the council last November, was one of a number of citizens who submitted a proposal for privatizing the city’s animal shelter.
In spring 2008, a former employee of the Billings Animal Shelter, Sarah Shipman, brought an ethics complaint against Stevens. Stevens says the complaint was not sent to the City Board of Ethics, but to the home of Ethics Board member Ron Crocker, with copies to then-Mayor Ron Tussing, City Administrator Tina Volek and the Animal Control Board.
The suit says Crocker and his wife, Jayne Crocker, had been supporters of Tussing and that Tussing nominated Crocker to the Ethics Board.
“The friction between former Mayor Tussing and Stevens was well known,” the suit says.
The board ruled in June 2008 that Shipman’s complaint did not merit an actual hearing, but then decided on its own that Stevens might have violated a different section of city code.
After a hearing later that June, the Ethics Board found that Stevens violated a provision of the ethics code by representing private interests while serving on the council. But District Judge Russell Fagg, chairman of the Ethics Board, said the violation “was not particularly egregious” because Stevens was only responding to questions about the animal rescue group posed by other council members, the suit says.
In August 2008, Sandra Wulff filed another ethics complaint against Stevens, “in a continuing effort to defeat the privatization of the Billings Animal Shelter through the City staff’s collusion with private parties,” according to the lawsuit.
In January 2009, the Ethics Board recommended dismissal of Wulff’s complaint because Stevens had resigned from the council and moved out of state. The suit says the board didn’t address the merits of the allegations and did not recommend prosecution.
Stevens said she spent $9,913 defending herself against the ethics complaints and she asks to be reimbursed that amount by the city.
She is also seeking unspecified damages for what she says is a violation of her rights under the Montana Constitution. Her suit says she engaged in conduct no different from that of other members of the City Council and city boards, but the city refused to reimburse her for the costs she incurred defending herself against the complaints.
She also accuses the city of colluding with private citizens to defeat privatization of the animal shelter. As a result of the city’s conduct, the suit says, Stevens suffered serious emotional distress, injury to her reputation, mental anguish, humiliation and public ridicule.
Stevens’ attorney is Liz Honaker, who joined the animal shelter board at Stevens’ invitation and who became board president after Stevens moved to Wyoming.