Lemon Grove councilman, city manager accused of squelching free speech

A community activist has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lemon Grove City Councilman Jerry Jones and City Manager Lydia Romero, alleging they curtailed his free speech by retaliating against him for comments on Facebook.

The activist, Marcus Bush, worked for Rick Engineering of San Diego, which has a city contract with Lemon Grove. Bush claims that city officials sought to affect his employment after he criticized Jones on the social media site.

“They used their political influence to attack me personally by trying to cut off my ability to provide for my kids and going after my job,” Bush told The San Diego Union-Tribune in an emailed statement. “Speaking out against government abuse is a cornerstone of our democracy.”

Bush is an ally of Councilman David Arambula, a Democrat who has sparred publicly with Jones on several matters. Jones earlier this year left the Republican Party and now lists his political affiliation as no party preference.

In particular, the two have disagreed over legislation by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, D-San Diego, that would reorganize the regional planning board known as the San Diego Association of Governments. Arambula favors the legislation, while Jones opposes it.

The legislation, Assembly Bill 805, passed the legislature and is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. The goal is to make the agency more transparent and accountable, but opponents say it will drain power from smaller cities like Lemon Grove.

According to the lawsuit filed by attorney Cory Briggs, Bush posted a comment on Facebook in July supporting a politician named James Elia, who is running for state Assembly.

“Time to usher in a new era of progressives and leave behind the ugly, thinly-veiled racist tendencies of men like Jerry Jones and (El Cajon Mayor) Bill Wells,” Bush posted. “So excited for James’ campaign!”

Bush, who lives in National City, later explained that he saw racism against Gonzalez-Fletcher in Jones’ opposition to AB 805.

Bush alleges that to get even, Jones complained to Romero less than two hours later, apparently in hopes that Bush would be quashed from making any further negative comments — or possibly affect his job.

“If this person is still working in the area I hope he doesn’t not (sic) see any time in Lemon Grove,” Jones allegedly wrote to Romero by email. “We need objective professionals that will serve the needs of the people of Lemon Grove. We do not need this kind of poison in our little city.”

The suit says that shortly after this exchange, Bush received a text message from his supervisor at work, Brian Mooney.

“Marcus there is a rumor out there the you placed a negative comment about a lemon grove councilman on Facebook, do you know anything about it? Call me so I can straighten it out,” the text said, according to the lawsuit.

According to the text message exchange attached to the lawsuit, Bush answered Mooney, “Yea it was about Jerry Jones and his criticizing my Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher with thinly-veiled racist remarks. I called those remarks exactly that. It was all regarding her proposed bill AB805.”

Bush told Mooney that his comments came from a personal Facebook page unconnected to Rick Engineering.

Mooney texted back that Bush identifies himself on his Linkedln page as a Rick employee, “and the councilman is our client so anything you post directly effects (sic) this company. I have been notified and all the management by the City Manager.”

The suit claims that Jones “abused his position as an elected official and with the assistance and influence of Romero, directed employees of the City of Lemon Grove to contact (Bush’s) employer, who holds a lucrative contract with the city, and urge that (Bush) be fired. As a consequence, (Bush) was indeed subjected to adverse treatment at work.”

Bush told the Union-Tribune, “Nobody should have to fear losing their job as a consequence of speaking out against injustice.”

According to Briggs, Bush has left the company and is pursuing a graduate degree.

Jones said he was taken aback by the comments and had not seen the lawsuit. He said that as far as he knew, he’s never met or spoken to Bush face-to-face. Jones has been on the Lemon Grove City Council since 2002. He was elected to the city’s school board in 1996 and again in 2000.

“I am not a racist, and I don't live my life that way,” he said.

Wells, the El Cajon mayor, said he also was unaware of the lawsuit but any correlation of his opposition to AB 805 to race is wrong. He said his concern was making sure El Cajon’s taxpaying residents are properly represented at SANDAG. He also defended Jones.

“It saddens me that oftentimes when people are losing the argument they resort to calling people racist,” Wells said. “I think racism is one of the most outdated concepts. We should be so past evolved at looking at people’s skin color. I believe having heard Jerry Jones talk about this issue that his thoughts are very parallel to mine. I find it absolutely offensive that people would try to link this to racism.”

Romero declined to comment.

“Without knowing any of the specifics, I cannot comment on the suit," she said.

karen.pearlman@sduniontribune.com

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