Megan Griego, Fired Surprise Employee, Sues Over Claim That City Violated Her Right to Free Speech

A woman who was fired by the city of Surprise after arguing against budget cuts in a public hearing is suing in federal court over the alleged violation of her free-speech rights.

Megan Griego had been working as an economic development coordinator for about three years when she decided to attend a weekend budget retreat on April 24 held at Surprise City Hall. During the call for public comment, she stepped up and argued against cuts to her department, pointing out that it had helped boost the local economy.

Wouldn't you know it -- that Monday morning, she found herself locked out of her workplace.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed yesterday:

When plaintiff Griego came to work at the City at 8:00 a.m. on Monday, April 26, 2010, she was locked out of the employee entrance to the building, her badge access was denied. She went to the first floor public entrance and spoke with the receptionist who informed Ms. Griego that her badge had been deactivated.

Ms. Griego then went to the fourth floor where she worked and learned that none of her co-workers' badges had been deactivated, only hers.

The next day, the suit states, department director Jeffrey Mihelich told Griego in front of another employee that, "I am just going to make this quick - we have decided to terminate your employment effective immediately."

She asked why they were letting her go, he he informed her that the city didn't need to give a reason.

According to an April Arizona Republic blog post about Griego's firing, the city planned to terminate all the employees in economic development and merge the department with Community Services.

Two contract employees were to be hired to carry out economic development duties, so Griego's job presumably would have disappeared, anyway.

Yet that's not quite what happened. The names of two men are listed as economic development coordinators in the city's directory, including one -- Mike Hoover -- who's bio says he's been with the department since February of 2008. The other, Al DeAngelis, has been the city's resource for small businesses for a few years.

(A quick aside of silliness: Griego's lawsuit, penned by Tempe attorney David Larkin, twice refers to Griego being granted free speech rights by the "Second and Fourteenth Amendments" of the U.S. Constitution. We're pretty sure he meant to write "First" Amendment.)

Neither Larkin nor Surprise officials returned our phone calls this morning.

(UPDATE: Larkin did leave a voice mail for us later, saying he was embarrassed about the Amendment error. He thanked us for pointing it out and later filed an amended complaint.)

Griego's looking for monetary compensation, plus punitive damages against her old boss, Mihelich.

Municipal bureaucrats across the Valley will want to watch this case, unless they're mindless robots programmed to speak only when commanded.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.