BY PETER JONES
A member of the Englewood City Council is being accused by some colleagues of hastening a lawsuit against the city through unethical conversations with the plaintiffs’ attorney and providing misleading or inaccurate information about the council’s intentions.
The conflict stems from a controversial ordinance that plaintiffs say unfairly limits convicted sex offenders to living in a patchwork that constitutes about 1 percent of the city.
According to the lawsuit’s amended filing, Councilmember Laurett Barrentine told attorney Alison Ruttenberg last month that “the chance of the city agreeing to hold off on attempting to enforce the ordinance was extremely unlikely,” implicitly, in part, because of a “significant rift between some of the City Council members and [an] interim city attorney.”
The lawsuit was filed Aug. 18, the same day Barrentine had the alleged phone conversation with Ruttenberg, according to the attorney’s amended court filing.
Councilmember Steve Yates says if the court document is correct, the lawsuit was filed under the false pretense that the council had ruled out an enforcement moratorium while it considered ways to possibly amend the ordinance in question.
“The council had already talked about having a study session to take a look at this ordinance to see if it should stand or we should modify it,” Yates said.
Ruttenberg’s filing does not indicate that Barrentine said the council was opposed in principle to amending the ordinance, only that her own proposal for a temporary moratorium would be “extremely unlikely” to pass council muster.
Although the city attorney publicly advised the council against such action due to liability issues, Yates says the council had not reached any public consensus on the issue.
Councilmember Rick Gillit agrees that Barrentine’s assumptions about council action likely dissuaded Ruttenberg from taking a wait-and-see attitude on the lawsuit.
“We were already talking about discussing the ordinance and possibly changing it. The very next day, we’re hit with a lawsuit,” Gillit said.
At press time, Ruttenberg had not returned a request for comment.
For Barrentine’s part, the councilmember told The Villager that the court filing is incorrect and that her conversation with the plaintiffs’ attorney occurred about a month earlier. When asked about the nature of the conversation and what she may have said to Ruttenberg, Barrentine became irate and ambiguous as to whether any conversation actually took place.
“[Ruttenberg] filed some paperwork that was incorrect. I don’t know how many times I have to say that. There wasn’t [a conversation]. That conversation never happened,” she said before abruptly hanging up the phone.
Earlier, Barrentine rebutted that if any councilmember were to blame, it would have been Gillit, referencing Brian Brockhausen, the lawsuit’s chef plaintiff and a convicted sex offender living in Englewood near Clayton Elementary School in violation of the ordinance.
“They’re suing the city because Rick Gillit on two occasions went ahead and said he was going to notify the community and send out information on this guy. [Ruttenberg] filed the lawsuit because she believed there were attempts to do vigilante antics,” Barrentine said.
Gillit denies ever making such a threat, insisting Barrentine has grossly misconstrued comments he has made about public interest in the issue.
“I’ve never contacted neighbors. I’ve never written anything on Nextdoor, Facebook—nothing,” he said.
Regardless of when any conversation between Barrentine and Ruttenberg may have happened, Gillit and Yates are certain their colleague inappropriately engaged in what is called “ex parte communications,” or that between parties to a legal proceeding not in the presence of the opposing party or attorney.
“Having ex parte communications with an opposing attorney and giving false information was, in my opinion, the catalyst for them to file that day instead of letting us go through the process and figure out how to potentially work with them,” Yates said.
Gillit says the nature of the conversation is essentially proven in the court filing, which mentions alleged conflicts between unnamed councilmembers and an interim city attorney.
“The only way [Ruttenberg] would know that information is if one of the councilmembers gave it to her,” Gillit said, noting his own limited ability to comment on the matter. “There was a discussion in executive session, which is supposed to be privileged conversation with our attorney.”
Because Barrentine is believed to be the councilmember with the strongest objections to the interim city attorney, it would be theoretically possible—and legal—for her to express those views to others outside executive session. Still, the filing indicates “some of the City Council members [plural]” had a rift with the attorney. Others may have spoken their concerns under the assumption of attorney-client privilege.
Barrentine hung up the phone before such questions could be asked of her.
Although Englewood currently prohibits ex parte communication by councilmembers, the city does not impose punishments for it.
Meanwhile, legal proceedings in Brockhausen v. Englewood continue. On Aug. 30, U.S. District Judge Raymond Moore denied a motion for a temporary restraining order on enforcement of the ordinance, but was to hear evidence this week on a request for a preliminary injunction that would serve the same function.
The 2006 ordinance effectively bans most registered sex offenders from living in Englewood with a set of strict distances between schools, daycare centers and other facilities.
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