Editor’s note: Jefferson County Vision asked the Spirit to publish its letter to Jefferson County Commission President Patsy Noland.
I write in response to your continuous denigration of the Jefferson County Vision organization, its goals, its supporters and your inappropriate behaviors at [Thursday’s] County Commission meeting. As the JCV board president and founder, I have watched as your negative commentary about JCV has included inaccurate statements about our activities being funded by “Rockwool competitors,”being liberal activists from outside the county, causing more harm to the county than Rockwool, and similar negative comments. We recognize as a citizen you are certainly entitled to have that opinion of JCV. However, as an elected government official, and now the president of the Jefferson County Commission, I expected that your overt demonstration of personal bias against a significant portion of your constituency was no longer appropriate. At a minimum I would have expected that your fellow commissioners or county attorney would have counseled you on government conduct that directly conflicts with your constitutional obligations.
To be clear, your questioning of applicants for the Jefferson County Development Authority positions directly violated their individual freedoms of association and speech. Your question of each applicant was some version of whether the applicant supported or agreed with the JCV lawsuit(s) against the JCDA. Although you did not specify which lawsuits, most applicants had heard of and assumed you were asking about their support of the PILOT litigation. These questions forced the applicant to consider whether they would respond to your obvious bias against the suits and the demonstrated hostility toward JCV for filing them. Your questions caused a “chilling effect” as the evening wore on, with applicants attempting to answer your question by distancing themselves from JCV or the lawsuits. When you finally interviewed Tim Ross, who was wearing a Toxic Rockwool T-shirt, and he suggested that your question was causing a “chilling effect” on applicants, you readily confirmed that was exactly your intention.
While you did not explain further, your comments leave nothing to the imagination – your question was designed and intended to intimidate applicants to the JCDA from expressing their views about anti-Rockwool sentiment or actions that challenged the previous decisions of the JCDA and are now subject to litigation, and their association with JCV.
Presumably, since you expressed concern that the responses by the applicants were “not candid” enough, your contemplated followup survey questions will ask even more pointed questions about legally protected activities and status.
While it was obvious to everyone in attendance that your question was inappropriate, some called it “unethical” and others felt that they “went too far.” We sought legal advice about the constitutionality of the questions and have confirmed that your questions, and any similar questions of JCDA applicants, or consideration of responses are a violation of their rights under the U.S. Constitution. Litigation is a form of freedom of expression, and is protected under the U.S. Constitution. Thus, your questions seeking their views on the JCV litigation, which you used to intentionally “chill” the applicants was a violation of their constitutional rights. Likewise, all citizens have a right to the freedom of association without harassment by the government – your negative commentary against JCV and those who support it, along with your misuse of your position of authority to harass or intimidate those who express views advocated by JCV, are also a violation of the constitutional rights of your constituents.
We recognize, and respect, the legitimate interest of the commission to inquire into the views of applicants about heavy industry, their vision of the future for Jefferson County, their familiarity with the Envision Jefferson 2035 Comprehensive Plan, their views on conflict and general experience as they choose new JCDA members. Those questions and the responses received revealed an impressive bench of qualified, thoughtful applicants from which the commission can choose. However, the response to the unconstitutional question should not be considered in making the decision, and we will be submitting a Freedom of Information Act for the notes and scores sheets used to select candidates to ensure that it did not.
Also, we are disturbed by the general disorganization of the meeting, the lack of adherence to the schedule which caused many of the applicants to have to leave before being interviewed. We oppose selection of anyone not publicly interviewed and ask that you schedule further interviews for remaining interested candidates at the next meeting. As was pointed out by Commissioner Josh Compton, since the other municipalities have not yet submitted applicants, there is no pressing need to rush this process.
Finally, these tactics are clearly an attempt to intimidate and discriminate based on your own personal bias, therefore we ask that you publicly acknowledge that your questions and intention to “chill” JCDA applicants from exercising their constitutional rights was an error on your part. You stated that you were just being “blunt,” but being blunt does not entitle you to abuse your authority and engage in behaviors that violate your oath of office to honor and support the Constitution and protect it for your constituents.
– Leigh Smith is the president of the board of Jefferson County Vision, the nonprofit fighting the Rockwool factory slated to open in Ranson next year