Mosquito Abatement director threatens lawsuit against T-I; resigns

Nance has since walked back threat; said she will resign

Moab Mosquito Abatement District Manager Libby Nance, right, recently said she would bring a lawsuit against The T-I for a report that she said “defamed” her. She has since said she will resign, but according to District Board Chair Tim Graham, left, she will stay on until the district finds a replacement. File photo by Doug McMurdo

Following a report from The Times-Independent on Aug. 8 regarding tests on local mosquitoes that showed positive for West Nile virus, Moab Mosquito Abatement District Manager Libby Nance said that she would sue The T-I over what she said was “false” reporting that, she said, “defamed” her.

“Not only have I been defamed, the misinformation you reported I said is not only false, it has the potential to cause needless public panic, hysteria and harm,” Nance said in an email to The T-I.

Nance later said, after being told that she would not win such a lawsuit, that rather than sue the newspaper, she would resign from her position with the district effective this week. Then she agreed to change her stance again, and to stay on in the position until a replacement can be found. An emergency closed meeting of the Mosquito Abatement District Board was called for Tuesday evening, but later cancelled when officials were told that the last-minute closed session did not meet public meetings notification laws.

In the story on Aug. 8, the T-I published a statement that was intended to communicate that birds and mosquitoes are a part of the West Nile virus transmission cycle, according to Nance. The statement was also intended to communicate that humans can be infected by the virus.

“The transmission cycle, she said, is from bird to mosquito to bird–and sometimes humans,” the story said.

Nance said that the statement made her “sound like a fool; a buffoon of a scientist who does not know what I am talking about,” because, she said, “humans do not transmit West Nile virus,” and she said that she would bring a lawsuit if The T-I did not print a “very clear retraction.”

Nance later said she was “promising” a defamation lawsuit after she said her family attorney assured her that she had “a 99.9% chance of winning” such a lawsuit.

“There is a simple solution for me to disengage from a lawsuit, and that is for [The T-I] to publish, on the front page of the next edition, above the fold, their serious mistake, both in terms of defamation to me, and for passing on false/misleading information,” Nance said in an email.

Here is a link to a letter to the editor from Tim Graham, the district’s board chair, regarding the matter.

Nance threatens to resign

In response to the promise of litigation, Grand County Clerk-Auditor Chris Baird, who Nance copied on emails regarding the matter, estimated that The T-I would not lose such a lawsuit.

“I can without a doubt say that there is no way that the newspaper would lose a lawsuit, no way,” Baird said in the email. “Case law and the First Amendment protect newspapers, especially.”

Baird outlined the high burden of proof on plaintiffs in defamation lawsuits and what protections that creates for publications.

In a response on Monday morning, Aug. 12, Nance thanked Baird for the information, said she was “firing the family attorney,” and said she was resigning.

“Once again all, and with respect, my terms remain the same–however, instead of a lawsuit, I will be resigning my position, effective the next T.I. publishing date–15 Aug 19,” Nance said in the email.

But Nance changed her statement again. Abatement District Board Chair Tim Graham subsequently said that Nance would not resign as soon as Thursday, but instead, would stay in her current position until the board finds a new person to fill her role.

The T-I reached out to Nance by email on Tuesday afternoon regarding the matter of her resignation but did not receive a response from her before press time.

Previous resignation attempt

In the email about her resignation, Nance apologized to the district board, members of whom were copied on the email, to “have to renege on a promise that I made to you that I would stay in my position at least until year end.”

Nance previously attempted to resign in late June amidst what the district board chair said was overwhelming pressure on Nance to control this year’s larger-than-normal mosquito hatch, alongside low staffing levels.

When she tendered her resignation, the board refused to accept it. Board Chair Tim Graham said Nance, an entomologist who had been on the job for two and a half years, became “overwhelmed” while out in the field doing work outside the scope of her normal duties due to dismal staffing levels.

“We have full confidence in Libby,” Graham said at the time. He told attendees of a district board meeting that the incident was “the result of her trying to do all the jobs,” and that the district had been short-staffed during the season.

Later, at a meeting on Aug. 6, Grand County Council Member Terry Morse said during his council report at the beginning of the meeting that Nance had recently received a raise for doing a good job at the abatement district.