Davidson files federal lawsuit, claims firing violated her constitutional rights
by Molly Marcello
The Times-Independent
Mar 16, 2017 | 4866 views | 0 0 comments | 120 120 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Former Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson and city officials will publically hash out the details of her termination in federal court. On March 9, Davidson’s lawyer filed an official complaint in U.S. District Court seeking more than $2 million in damages, and asserting that Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison and the Moab City Council acted with “reckless or callous indifference” to her federally protected rights and terminated her in retaliation for being a whistleblower about misconduct within the Moab Police Department.

The complaint alleges that city officials violated “clear and substantial public policy” intended to protect members of the public from unlawful conduct by police departments, and also violated the Utah Whistleblower Act. The complaint also alleges that Moab city and Sakrison deprived Davidson of her constitutional rights.

As a result, the complaint alleges, Davidson “suffered damage to her career and ability to find comparable employment as a City Manager ... [and] believes that she will be unable to find comparable employment prior to a standard age of retirement.”

City representatives described the charges as “unsubstantiated” and “baseless,” and expressed confidence that the city will prevail against the claims.

Davidson’s attorney, Gregory Stevens, initially sent a notice of claim to city officials in December — a move he said was intended to begin the process of settling the matter outside of court. City representatives adamantly denied the allegations made in that claim, which also asked for more than $2 million in damages.

“The city has no interest in settling these claims given that they have no merit,” Interim Moab City Manager David Everitt told The Times-Independent. “... The city looks forward to its day in court with Ms. Davidson.”

Davidson was hired as the city manager in March 2015 and assumed the position in April 2015. Almost 18 months later, on Sept. 13, 2016, she was placed on paid administrative leave, at the discretion of Sakrison.

At the time, Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta told The Times-Independent that the decision to place Davidson on administrative leave was “influenced” by internal issues raised by members of the Moab City Council.

“There were internal issues in the organization that the council determined needed to be evaluated,” Stenta said in September 2016. “The council felt the process would be streamlined if the city manager were on leave. That was the reason behind the mayor’s decision.”

Davidson’s contract was then terminated “without cause” on Sept. 30, 2016. Under a provision of her contract that required the city to pony up severance pay if Davidson were terminated without cause, she received nine months pay, which amounted to more than $90,000, city officials have said.

Shortly after being placed on administrative leave, Davidson filed a defamation lawsuit against five citizens, including several residents of Moab. Davidson, as well as her roommate, Tara Smelt, and Smelt’s company, Tayo, Inc., recently lost that lawsuit 7th District Court in Moab, although her attorney has said there are plans to appeal part of that decision.

During proceedings for the defamation lawsuit, Stevens said he received a “proffered reason for [Davidson] being placed on leave” from Moab city — her management style.

Stevens dismissed that explanation as a “pretext” for the true reason for Davidson’s firing, which he alleged is because the mayor and the city wanted to protect Moab Police Chief Mike Navarre by inhibiting Davidson’s inquiry into the Moab Police Department.

“The Mayor did not take appropriate remedial action to correct or otherwise address the issues raised by Ms. Davidson but, instead, sought to protect his friend, the Chief of Police, and members of the Police Department, to the detriment of the citizens of the City and persons traveling through or visiting the City,” Stevens stated in the complaint filed in federal court.

According to the complaint, Davidson was made aware of at least three investigations into the conduct of the Moab Police Department from April 2016 to August 2016.

During August and September 2016, according to the complaint, Davidson raised concerns to the mayor, city council and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) regarding the conduct of police department personnel and the police chief. Those concerns, according to Stevens, included allegations that police department employees lied while testifying in court, made threats against citizens, harassed witnesses, and drank alcohol with minors.

The FBI has confirmed it conducted a review of issues related to the Moab Police Department and later sent those findings to the Utah State Bureau of Investigation, which recently conducted its own investigation.

Records provided to The Times-Independent by the police department also confirm that two internal affairs (IA) investigations were opened on April 11, 2016 and another was opened May 20, 2016.

Those records show that two other IA investigations were opened Sept. 23, 2016, during the time Davidson was placed on administrative leave.

“Ms. Davidson raised the foregoing issues with the City Council, Mayor, and FBI in an effort to bring to light actual or potential wrongdoing or breach of public trust by public officials within the Moab City governmental entity,” Stevens wrote in the complaint.

But city officials present a much different version of the events that led to Davidson’s termination.

Responding to Stevens’ notice of claim, Austin Riter, an attorney with Parr, Brown, Gee, and Loveless, the law firm representing the city in the matter, argued that Davidson’s allegations lack any legal or factual merit and remain “contrary to the actual investigatory evidence.”

Riter’s response alleges that city personnel had raised concerns to city administration during the time period in question and that those concerns were about Davidson’s management style.

“At the time the City placed Ms. Davidson on administrative leave with pay, City personnel had complained to the City about her managerial style and workplace behavior,” Riter wrote. “The reason that Ms. Davidson was placed on administrative leave with pay was so that the merits of those allegations could be fully and fairly investigated by outside employment counsel before the City made any decision whether or not to take any associated employment action concerning Ms. Davidson.”

Riter said an “intensive and exhaustive” four-day investigation into the city employee complaints against Davidson revealed her inability to lead staff, manage the city’s affairs, and “otherwise fulfill the duties and obligations of her position as City Manager.”

Riter’s response depicts Davidson’s management style as “aggressive and divisive,” and says that four-day investigation found she had problematic relationships with staff, difficulty managing her own assignments, and engaged in patterns of micro-management.

Riter’s response to the federal lawsuit claims that Davidson’s allegations against Moab city and Sakrison are a “vendetta.”

“ ... Given the nature and scope of the investigatory evidence and the at-will contractual relationship that governed Ms. Davidson’s employment, [the city and mayor] have every confidence in prevailing,” Riter said.

Although he offered no additional comment on the lawsuit itself, Interim City Manager Everitt said he expects the city to win in court.

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