Note: This story was updated on April 27 to correct details about the Pope Street and Jackson Street buildings.
A federal civil trial in a case against the city of Athens, Tennessee, its city attorney and city manager that ended in a January mistrial started anew Monday in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
Athens resident Glenn Whiting filed suit against the city, City Attorney Chris Trew and City Manager C. Seth Sumner alleging First Amendment violations by the defendants over a sign Whiting painted on the side of a downtown building in 2019 critical of the police department and city in a stolen car investigation. Whiting contends city officials condemned a building owned by his father-in-law and mother-in-law and ordered it demolished it in retaliation for voicing his complaints at city meetings and in the painted message, according to court documents filed on Oct. 15.
Athens officials have denied the allegations.
A mistrial in the case was declared in January when jurors couldn't reach a consensus after deliberating for three days in the first trial of the case. Monday's retrial began before a jury of five women and three men, including two alternates.
Whiting's lawyer, Van Irion, told jurors Monday in his opening statement the commercial building Whiting's family owned on Pope Street was condemned and demolished in retaliation for Whiting's criticism of city officials while another building owned by an unnamed City Council member — a commercial building on Fisher Street in Athens — was in similar condition but was not given the same treatment by city officials, Irion said.
Though Whiting's suit does not contain the painted message at issue, Whiting provided a photo of it in January.
It said: "Witness calls me to tell me about car being stolen out of our building. Called 911 was told wouldn't stop robbery until we prove ownership? Witness confronts thieves they ran for the car and took off. Athens P.D. still refuse to get involved? Car found damaged and radio stolen. APD refusing to talk to witnesses or fingerprint. Met with chief Couch and Seth Sumner who promised to investigate. Well over a year later, key witnesses still not questioned, Mayor Burris refuses to allow me to speak at city council about car. Is this the leadership we want? Time for change!!!"
The building the sign was painted on — a different structure than the one that was demolished — stands across the street from the McMinn County Courthouse facing Jackson Street, a main northbound thoroughfare in downtown Athens. Whiting has since painted over the message.
In district court Monday, Irion told jurors Whiting took over management of the Pope Street building around the same time the dispute over the stolen car arose. Since assuming the role of city manager about five years ago, Sumner had created a climate of fear among city employees to enable him to control city actions, even to the point of condemning and ordering the demolition of the Pope Street building, Irion said.
Dan Pilkington, an attorney representing the city, Sumner and Trew, said the true question before the jury was whether the condemnation of the Pope Street building by the city was reasonable in light of its condition and city ordinances. Pilkington told jurors the Pope Street building was in far worse condition than described by Whiting.
Nearby residents of the Pope Street building had made complaints to the city, Pilkington told jurors, and the codes enforcement officer rendering opinions on its condition didn't know Whiting. The owner of the property, Whiting's father-in-law Don Ammerman, was notified of the situation but didn't show up at a city hearing on the matter, Pilkington said.
The property owner's failure to appear at the hearing forced the city's hand, and city officials can't be held responsible for a property owner's inaction, Pilkington told jurors.
The city needed to condemn the building because it was unsafe, not as retaliation, he said. Whiting's free speech criticizing the city doesn't mean the city can't take action against unfit buildings, Pilkington said.
Whiting's suit seeks damages and injunctive relief, but no monetary amount is specified in the court documents. It also asks that the defendants reimburse Whiting for attorney's fees.