Insurance denied: City footing Lee statue, parking garage legal bills

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Since 2016, Charlottesville has faced a larger-than-usual number of high-profile lawsuits, and in at least two cases, its insurance carrier won’t be picking up the tab. And while the carrier hasn’t seen the most recent suit, filed by Albemarle County over the Ragged Mountain Natural Area April 20, that litigation could join the Lee statue coverage denial as a “willful violation” of state law.

The city’s insurer, the Virginia Municipal League, covered Joe Draego’s federal lawsuit after he was dragged out of City Council for calling Muslims “monstrous maniacs,” and a judge ruled the city’s public comment policy banning group defamation was unconstitutional.

But VML is not covering the lawsuit filed against the city for its 3-2 vote to remove the statue of General Robert E. Lee, nor is it covering Mark Brown’s Charlottesville Parking Center litigation against the city, which heads to mediation May 31.

In that case, the city is paying Richmond LeClairRyan attorney Tom Wolf $425 an hour. At press time, City Attorney Craig Brown was unable to come up with costs of that suit, but a year ago, as of April 30, 2016, before the city had gone to court on Brown’s emergency receivership petition, it had spent $11,593.

Craig Brown says the suits on the statue, parking garage and the dispute with Albemarle have “all generated a large amount of public interest, whereas someone tripping on a sidewalk doesn’t.”

“It’s unusual to be involved in as much high-profile litigation as it is now,” agrees former mayor and CPC general manager Dave Norris.

“There’s only a certain amount of appetite taxpayers have to paying high-priced lawyers,” he says.

The litigation with Albemarle stems from the city’s December 19 vote to allow biking at Ragged Mountain, which is located in the county, despite county regulations that prohibit biking at the reservoir. Before the vote, Liz Palmer, then chair of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, sent a December 15 letter to City Council asking it to defer action and citing state code that prohibits a landowner locality from adopting regulations in conflict with the jurisdiction where the property is located.

And while the city held a year’s worth of public meetings about uses at Ragged Mountain, conspicuously absent from that process was the county. “We were not involved in that,” says Board of Supervisors chair Diantha McKeel. “It’s unfortunate it got as far as it did without recognizing that.”

McKeel stresses that the city and county are not at odds on most issues, but says, “Both of our localities have agreed this is a legal question that has to be settled in the courts.”

After the City Council voted April 3 to adopt a new trails plan that would allow biking, the city offered binding arbitration, “precisely because we wanted to resolve the underlying legal issues without having to go to court,” says Mayor Mike Signer.

That was an offer the county declined. “The question goes back to state code,” says McKeel. “We can’t mediate our way out of that.”

Attorney Buddy Weber, a plaintiff in the Lee statue suit, sees a pattern with the city’s decision to proceed at Ragged Mountain over the county’s objections—and state statutes. “What you really have to ask is where they’re getting their legal advice,” he says. “Are they doing this to invite litigation?”

An injunction hearing is scheduled for May 2 to halt the city from moving the statue—or selling it, as council voted to do April 17. “We thought it was reckless for them to do what they did to remove the statue,” says Weber.  “Selling it falls in line with that. That’s why we need an injunction.”

But when Councilor Bob Fenwick changed his vote to remove the statue February 6, he said it was an issue that would have to be decided by the courts.

For activist Walt Heinecke, that fight embodies the city’s values on the Civil War statue, and he also applauds council’s funding of $10,000 to Legal Aid Justice Center to support immigrants. “I do think it’s important,” he says.

Other legal battles, like the city’s defense of its 2011 panhandling ordinance or the Draego lawsuit, “seem like a complete waste of money,” he says. Heinecke hasn’t followed the Ragged Mountain debate, but says, “It certainly seems there would be better ways to work this through rather than bull-dogging it.”

Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who had his own day in court recently to fend off a petition to remove him from office, says when he was campaigning, he frequently heard comments that prior councils were “paralyzed” and that citizens wanted City Council to make decisions.

“This council is committed to making a difference and to making bold choices,” he says. “We’re not going to be paralyzed.”

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