The former treasurer of Empire who was fired after she publicly confronted City Council members about a secret agreement with the town’s only marijuana dispensary owner to defer thousands of dollars in fees has filed a lawsuit against the city in federal court.
The whistle-blower lawsuit filed Tuesday by Dawn Ward’s attorney Ahson Wali accuses Mayor Wendy Koch and other Empire City Council members of violating Ward’s First Amendment rights by firing her for making protected comments at a council meeting.
“By voting to terminate Plaintiff, the Mayor and the Board violated plaintiff’s First Amendment rights through an official act or policy of the town,” the lawsuit says.
Koch did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.
Ward, who was Empire’s treasurer from 2013 to 2015, seeks compensatory damages for future lost wages and for emotional pain, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life. She also is seeking compensation for attorney’s fees.
Ward’s lawsuit said that on May 19, 2015, she spoke out against a proposed city ordinance that essentially would give the town’s only marijuana dispensary owner a monopoly in selling marijuana legally in Empire.
During her comments she asked the dispensary’s owner, Dan Volpe, if he intended to pay his tap fee, the lawsuit says.
Ward had learned while preparing the town audit that the City Council had failed to disclose a 2012 agreement with Volpe for two years that allowed him to “finance” his tap fees.
One of the City Council members, Robert Morris, owned the building where Volpe ran his dispensary, the lawsuit says.
Volpe, who spoke in favor of the new ordinance, had not made a single monthly payment on his debt to the city, the lawsuit says.
Following her statements at the meeting, Morris “verbally accosted” Ward at a restaurant, and city leaders initiated disciplinary action against her for speaking out at the council meeting. Morris resigned less than a month later.
His replacement, Richard Sprague, was appointed by the council. Sprague ordered Ward to give her work laptop to the city clerk to use for a grant-writing class, which “had priority over the town’s annual audit.”
Without the laptop, Ward could not perform her duties as treasurer, which included paying city bills.
On Sept. 15, 2015, the board unanimously voted to fire Ward, the lawsuit says.