Former Exeter chief sues city

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Martinez aiming to be reinstated, receive damages

The former police chief for the city of Exeter has filed a lawsuit against the city and its leaders petitioning for reinstatement to his position and damages.

Kenen Martinez, who was fired from his post as police chief following a hearing in mid-August, said at the time he intended to file a suit against the city. The petition for judicial review of administrative decision, damages and injunctive relief was filed in Cole County on Sept. 30. It outlines seven requests to the court:

• An order reversing the city’s decision in a contested case to remove Martinez, or a de novo hearing of the decision as a non-contested case

• Injunctive relief, including, but not limited to, reinstatement of Martinez as the police chief and removal of all documents related to the removal proceeding from his personnel file

• Backpay and lost benefits for the duration of the removal

• Compensatory damages for lost wages, benefits, emotional distress and injury to reputation

• Punitive damages for the city’s and its officials’ “willful, wanton and reckless disregard” for Martinez’s rights

• Costs and reasonable attorney’s fees

• Other relief as the court deems just and proper

The suit is against the city of Exeter as a municipal corporation, and it is also against, individually and in their capacities with the city: Mayor James Reed, Alderwoman Rhonda Scott, Alderman Jeffrey Scott, Alderwoman Tasha McNabb, alderman Keith Johnson and Municipal Court Clerk Marissa Robbins.

The suit hinges on multiple allegations made by Martinez regarding city officials’ behavior before, during and after the removal hearing on Aug. 17.

Leading up to the hearing, Martinez said he was asked to not conduct criminal investigations, but only to write traffic tickets and code violations, per Mayor Reed’s and the council’s request.

“At a Feb. 22, 2018, meeting of the city council, alderman Jeff Scott moved to limit the Exeter Police Department to conduct a total of 40 hours of work per week, and that ‘traffic and ordinance enforcement are priority issues,’” the suit alleges. “on or about February 26, 2018, Mayor Reed again told Martinez that his only job was to write traffic tickets, and that he needed to be writing at least three tickets every day. Martinez told Mayor Reed that his instruction to write three tickets per day was an illegal request he could not follow.”

Martinez told a former council member about the directive, who also told the mayor and city clerk it was illegal.

On April 8, Martinez said there was an outstanding warrant for a city employee on contract, and Reed told him to “let the matter drop.” When a felony warrant was issued for the same employee, Martinez arrested the employee and said Reed was “livid and told Martinez he should not have executed the warrant.”

Martinez continued by alleging nepotism on the part of the council, as Alderman Jeff Scott nominated and voted for his sister-in-law, Alderwoman Rhonda Scott, to be acting president and mayor pro-tem in an April 13 meeting.

“At the same meeting, the council told Martinez that they did not want him to attend future council meetings,” the suit claims. “Martinez informed the council he was required to attend the meetings by city ordinance.”

The suit says Martinez informed Reed of the alleged nepotism, and Reed dismissed the concerns because he had hired family members for city groundskeeping work. Martinez also alleges the public works director hired a relative to do various jobs for the city.

Martinez went on to discuss issues in June with relatives of city officials, including a traffic stop of a relative of Robbins.

“During the traffic stop, Robbins pulled up in her own car and asked Martinez to write [the suspect] a ticket, rather than suspend his license,” the suit alleges. “Early the following morning, Martinez responded to a 911 call involving the same individual being drunk and disorderly in public. [Martinez went to the suspect’s home and waited, and] when [the suspect] arrived home with a friend, the friend was arrested by barry County Sheriff’s deputies for driving while intoxicated. Martinez told [the suspect] it would be his final warning.”

The suit alleges Robbins complained to Martinez about the treatment of the relative, demanded Martinez apologize to another relative, “or else.” Martinez refused, and Robbins demanded he deliver a stack of municipal warrants to the 911 dispatcher for the Sheriff’s Office to execute.

“The warrants had all been signed by Robbins herself, rather than by the municipal judge, and were, therefore, invalid, so Martinez refused to take them from her,” the suit said.

Martinez said Robbins had been signing warrants since December 2016 without authority to do so, and he informed the associate circuit judge, circuit judge and Office of State Courts Administrator.

On July 31, Martinez received a Notice of Hearing regarding his removal, set for Aug. 17. The suit alleges the notice did not include any documents underlying any bases for Martinez’s removal. On Aug. 15, Martinez’s attorney faxed the city demanding copies of all evidence intended to be used at the hearing; records relating to Martinez’s use of the city’s credit card, one of the reasons for removal outlined in the notice; and a copy of phone records showing proof of harassment of Alderman Johnson’s wife, another reason for removal.

One hour later, Martinez’s attorney faxed a second letter stating if the requests could not be met that the attorney be granted five subpoenas for production of evidence, as well as a continuance to allow for the subpoenas to be served.

“Mayor Reed responded to the fax: ‘due to the lateness of the request, all documents requested, pertaining to the hearing only, will be available on the hearing date,” the suit said. “On the matter of Councilman’s Keith Johnson’s telephone records, our attorney, James LeCompte, has advised that this request shall be denied.”

The suit claims a second fax one hour later from Reed said the meeting time will continue as planned, and no continuance would be granted.

The suit claims the day before the hearing, Johnson spoke to a local businessman in Exeter at a convenience store, saying he was not supposed to talk about the hearing, but Martinez had illegally purchased over $4,000 in personal property on the city’s credit card and that “the hearing is closed, but we will open it up when we announce the guilty verdict.” Martinez claims this indicated the council had already decided to remove him before the hearing.

When Martinez heard about the conversation, he addressed it on social media, and Johnson allegedly replied on social media that he had been lying to get out of the conversation.

On Aug. 17, a written motion for discover, subpoenas and a continuance were denied by the city, and the suit claims the city did not offer any testimony or evidence.

“[They told] Martinez that he had to ‘go first,’” the suit said. “After Martinez rested his case, the council voted to remove him from office.”

On Sept. 5, Martinez’s attorney received two documents, one dated Aug. 30 saying Martinez had been removed as chief, and a second showing the vote at the hearing, 3-0 with Jeff Scott abstaining.

Martinez’s suit request the court review his firing under RMSo 536.010, claiming the hearing should be a contested case and his rights were violated by the lack of evidence provided prior to the hearing, absence of witnesses, refusal of discovery, refusal of subpoenas, failure to follow fundamental rules of evidence and failure to provide any findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The suit claims the city fired Martinez for disclosing conduct he believed to be against the law, including: disclosing the mayor’s directive of writing three tickets per day to the former council member; disclosing the alleged unauthorized signing of court warrants by the court clerk; and disclosing alleged nepotism by the mayor, council members and city employees.

In the suit, Martinez demands a trial by jury.

LeCompte said he has yet to review the litigation and declined comment.

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