A former employee of Wood River Township claims she was wrongfully terminated for refusing to sell tickets to a political fundraiser prior to the municipal election earlier this year.
In a suit filed Thursday against Assessor Sandy Shaw and the Township, Sheena Howard alleges violations of her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and association and the Illinois Whistleblowers' Act because she expressed opposition to the practice of requiring political involvement and was fired in retaliation for speaking up about it.
Shaw, who according to voting records casts Democratic ballots, is alleged to have convened a meeting of employees sometime before a March 15 fundraiser to tell workers' they were "expected to sell a certain number of fund raiser tickets or to buy at least 2 tickets," the suit says.
"Plaintiff reasonably believed that it was illegal for defendant Shaw to require or otherwise instruct public employees to engage in political activity while working, including but not limited to the sale of fundraiser tickets," the suit says.
Howard claims she later expressed her opposition at an office meeting on March 30, after which she was written up by Shaw. About a week later, Howard informed Township Supervisor Mike Babcock, a Republican, of the alleged illegal activity, and again Shaw added a note to Howard's personnel file about the meeting with Babcock, the suit claims.
She further claims that on April 20, a note was added to her personnel file warning of possible termination if she "keeps taking off," even though she claims she never used more sick time or time off than what she was allotted.
She was terminated on June 1 and received nine hours unused sick pay, the suit claims.
"Defendant Shaw believed plaintiff was a Republican at worst, or 'not a Democrat' at best and terminated plaintiff's employment based on plaintiff's perceived political affiliation," the suit claims.
Howard claims that Shaw's assertion that she was terminated for excessive absences was "patently" false, and that the real reason was that she refused to contribute money to, or solicit money for candidates or causes that she did not agree with in violation of the First Amendment.
She is seeking at least $50,000 in damages for lost wages, at least $50,000 in damages for pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages and costs. Howard is represented by Keith Short and Jack Daugherty of Collinsville.
Shaw declined to comment.
Madison County Circuit Court case number 17-L-1112