Meet John Doe: Free speech rights in Winnebago County restricted after long battle
By Paul Gorski
Rockford resident Michael Castronovo claimed he was denied his free speech rights in 2009 when he was denied the opportunity to air complaints about the county engineer before the full Winnebago County Board and the Public Works committee. Almost four years later, Oct. 23, 2013, a jury “found no violations of First Amendment rights by the county” (“Jury in federal lawsuit finds Winnebago County did not violate free-speech rights,” posted online Oct. 24, 2013).
I was on the county board when Castronovo made his initial complaints, and I served as a witness in his defense in the October jury trial. I feel sorry for Mr. Castronovo, county residents and our legal system. Something went terribly wrong here in this case.
The Winnebago County Board passed a rule in 2008 stating that residents couldn’t use the public speaking periods of county meetings to discuss “zoning items, personnel matters, or any pending or threatened litigation involving the County.” This was, in part, to prevent residents from complaining about employees the board had no control over. The board and board chairman jointly appoint some officials, but the board has little or no control over most county employees.
Castronovo then came before the board in 2009 to request that a turn lane cut out to his business be restored following the resurfacing of Harrison Road (“County, Castronovo try to reach middle of the road on median issue,” from the Dec. 9-15, 2009, issue). Eventually, Castronovo wanted to speak about the county engineer’s handling of his inquiries before the board, the engineer being responsible for county road projects. Board officials denied Castronovo’s request to speak, as it was of a “personnel” nature. So, Castronovo eventually filed suit against the county for violating of his free speech rights, and the case dragged on until this past October.
During the recent trial, Castronovo’s attorneys focused on basic free speech rights, and the county used the 2008 board rule in its defense. What seemed to get lost in the discussion was that the 2008 rule didn’t apply here. The county engineer position is a political, appointed position, appointed directly by the county board. The county engineer is a very unique public official.
The position of county engineer is defined in state law: qualifications, appointment process and term of office. Yes, a term of office. The county engineer reports directly to the county board, and the board is responsible for the appointment, re-appointment and supervision of the county engineer.
Elected and appointed officials are not usually considered “personnel” in law, as their hiring and firing is not controlled by union contracts and they just can’t be hired or fired at a supervisor’s whim. Appointed officials are public officials, and the public is permitted to comment on a public official’s performance.
The jury’s verdict restricts our rights to discuss concerns about a public official with other public officials. Any meeting called to discuss the county engineer before the full board would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, and as such, open to the public and subject to that restrictive 2008 board rule. This ruling now prevents any open discussion about board appointees with the board.
The public must be allowed to discuss the performance of public officials, in this case, a board appointee, in public; that is our right. I ask the county board to remove this restriction on our freedom of speech.
Paul Gorski (http://www.paulgorski.com) is a Cherry Valley Township resident who also authors the Tech-Friendly column seen in this newspaper.
From the Dec. 18-24, 2013, issue