TRAVERSE CITY — A pending $135,000 settlement could close two civil rights cases over Traverse City Housing Commission officials' actions after a resident posted signs in support of a controversial ballot initiative.
Attorney Kathryn Walker said her client Priscilla Townsend and the commission's attorneys recently came to a "very amicable" resolution which should be finalized in about 30 days. She said all that remains is the answer to an insurance question.
"I hope that this means something to all of Traverse City government, including the housing commission," Walker said. "It demonstrates that there is real value to our constitutional rights and free speech.”
Townsend didn't return a call for comment, nor did the commission's attorneys Daniel White and Matthew Wodja.
The contentious debate surrounding last year's Proposal 3 ballot initiative spawned the case.
Townsend, a local activist and resident at Riverview Terrace public housing, supported the Proposal 3's call for a public vote on any proposal to build a structure taller than 60 feet in Traverse City. Housing commissioners, on the other hand, formally opposed the measure.
Their opposition raised suspicions when Townsend and 14 other residents received eviction notices after they posted Halloween jack-o'-lanterns signs emblazoned with "Yes 3." Housing officials cited lease requirements that state residents must obtain permission before displaying signs, but withdrew the evictions after Townsend, backed by American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, cried foul.
Prop 3 passed days later and Townsend filed a 13th Circuit Court lawsuit calling her eviction notice "retaliation" for political advocacy and a potential violation of her free speech rights.
A legal maneuver by the housing commission's attorneys sent the case to federal court, where a judge effectively split the case in two — one remaining in his court and another going back to the local circuit court.
Walker said judges in both courts subsequently gave favorable rulings for Townsend before a formal mediation. She said the mediation ended with a proposed settlement.
"There is a settlement for $135,000," she said.
Housing commission board President Andy Smits couldn't be reached for comment. Smits' housing board colleague and city Commissioner Brian Haas read a statement during a public meeting this week that called the settlement an "unconditional" cash offer to close both cases.
Townsend's other attorney Grant Parsons said the case came down to whether people who live in public housing have the same rights as others. He said Townsend will continue to live at Riverview Terrace.
"What Priscilla really does hope that this thing dies down,” he said.
Walker said Townsend is interested in giving back some of the money. She said attorneys are looking into options.
"We’re doing our research to make sure her benefits aren’t affected and she can accept and distribute the funds as she wants," Walker said.