A Republican county commissioner arrested during a meeting for criticizing the sheriff has scored a major win in federal court. Niki Frenchko, the only Republican on the Trumbull County, Ohio, Board of Commissioners, was arrested during a meeting in July 2022 for criticizing the performance of Sheriff Paul Monroe. “Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” Judge J. Philip Calabrese of the Northern District of Ohio wrote in the ruling on Tuesday.
In November 2020, Frenchko unseated 16-year incumbent and Trumbull County Democrat Party Chairman Dan Polivka by 52-48. The Democrat Party responded by trying to have her election declared illegal. The resistance to her campaign and subsequent election didn’t let up when she was declared the winner. County employees went so far as to attempt to have a “protective order” entered against her. She also didn’t bond with her fellow commissioners.
The two other commissioners, Mauro Cantalamessa and Frank Fuda, were Democrats and Ms. Frenchko, as the lone Republican, saw it as her job to “needle” them, the ruling said. Mr. Fuda retired at the end of 2022.
“For their part, they viewed her as ignorant of the basic workings of county government and a nuisance, to put it mildly,” the ruling said. “As her colleagues became more and more frustrated and impatient with her, their personal and political disagreements grew increasingly heated.”
“Needle” is certainly one way to describe things.
The dispute stemmed from a meeting in early June 2022, when Ms. Frenchko read into the record a letter from the mother of a man who was jailed in Trumbull County. The letter writer said that her son had received inadequate medical attention after he contracted meningitis.
Sheriff Monroe wrote a letter in July demanding that Ms. Frenchko apologize for the statements she had made and criticized her for reading the letter in public because its claims had not been verified.
Since 2010, at least seven lawsuits have been filed alleging that the rights of inmates at the Trumbull County Jail had been violated, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
Mr. Fuda directed a clerk to read the sheriff’s letter at a commission meeting on July 7, 2022. Ms. Frenchko interrupted the clerk and objected, the ruling said. Mr. Fuda ordered her to stop interrupting, using his gavel and raising his voice, but Ms. Frenchko continued objecting and mocked the clerk, who started to cry, the ruling said.
She was handcuffed, taken to jail, held for a while, and released.
The charges against Frenchko, a misdemeanor count of “disturbing a lawful meeting,” were soon dismissed. In April 2023, Frenchko filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the other two commissioners, the board of commissioners, the county, the sheriff’s office, and the two goons who arrested her, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights.
In Judge Calabrese’s 81-page ruling, he didn’t hold back.
“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” Judge Calabrese wrote. “This case tests that longstanding norm as well as our Constitution’s robust protections for free speech that allow us to criticize our representatives and public officials. Plaintiff Niki Frenchko won election to the three-member Board of County Commissioners of Trumbull County, Ohio. She was an outsider, and the only member of County government from her political party. As a public official, she used her position to needle the incumbents and, in her view, hold them accountable for their decisions. For their part, they viewed her as ignorant of the basic workings of county government and a nuisance, to put it mildly.”
Judge Calabrese found that the defendants had violated Frenchko’s First and Fourth Amendment rights and stripped the other two commissioners, Sheriff Monroe and his two deputies, of personal immunity from the pending lawsuit.
There is no word if a copy of this ruling has been sent to Georgia, New York, and the Department of Justice.