Boones Mill’s former utilities manager has filed a complaint in federal court alleging Town Manager B.T. Fitzpatrick violated his right to free speech.
James Dillon oversaw the small town’s water and wastewater systems until he was fired last summer. The systems are now operated by the Western Virginia Water Authority, though Boones Mill has retained ownership.
Fitzpatrick declined to comment, on the advice of an attorney. But the town manager said that, as of Monday, he’d yet to be served with the lawsuit. It names only Fitzpatrick as a defendant, not the town.
Court documents show the lawsuit stems from a disagreement between Fitzpatrick and Dillon about how to address an asbestos-wrapped pipe and whether to bring the problem to the town council.
When a contractor was repairing a collapsed sewer line near the town’s farmers market, which was not yet open, he uncovered a buried, asbestos-wrapped pipe. He reported the discovery to Dillon, who was overseeing the work, the complaint states.
Dillon was under the impression that “special efforts had to be undertaken to either remove or encapsulate the asbestos,” and told Fitzpatrick as much.
Representatives with the Western Virginia Water Authority recommended covering up the pipe, a strategy Fitzpatrick endorsed, the complaint states. Dillon disagreed, and felt the town council should be made aware of the situation and included in the discussion of how to remedy it.
Prior to Fitzpatrick’s hiring Dillon, who had been employed by the town since August 2013, reported directly to town council. Not long after Fitzpatrick was hired in February 2018, the chain of command was changed such that Dillon would report to the town manager, according to the documents.
Fitzpatrick told Dillon he would speak to town council members about the pipe, but did not, the complaint states. Dillon was “fearful of the consequences if he disobeyed” the town manager, and filled in the hole.
But he continued to press the issue. Fitzpatrick eventually told Dillon he was “forbidden” from speaking with the town council about that matter or any other.
Things came to a head when Fitzpatrick asked Dillon if he had anything to contribute to the agenda for a July town council meeting, and he again brought up the asbestos-wrapped pipe.
Finally, Fitzpatrick fired Dillon. The complaint alleges the town manager said, “I am going to teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
The complaint argues that Fitzpatrick violated Dillon’s First Amendment rights by preventing him from speaking to the council. It also notes Dillon was not given any prior warning that his actions might lead to his termination, and Fitzpatrick did not comply with procedures outlined in the town’s handbook when he fired Dillon.
Mel Williams, Dillon’s attorney, characterized the lawsuit as a free speech case, rather than wrongful termination.
“But part of his claim is that he was terminated for insisting on his ability to speak out about things he thought were important for town council to know about,” Williams said.