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Both sides file motions
in zoo-related lawsuit

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark reporter

A complex civil suit filed against the Platte County Commission has taken a sharp turn in a lengthy litigation process.

An important motion was recently filed by attorneys representing Jeanette Hernandez Prenger, Stefany Williams, and Friends of the Zoo, Inc. petitioning the court to order a judgment without the necessity of going to trial.

In the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, they contend that they have presented undisputed facts and arguments, which support an immediate judgment in their favor.

The civil suit began last year when the Platte County Commission did not act on a request to put the Kansas City Zoological District 1/8 cent sales tax issue on the November ballot, in spite of being presented with more than 2900 valid signatures in August, seeking placement of the issue on the November ballot.

After the commission refrained from putting the matter on the ballot for a public vote, representatives of the Friends of the Zoo filed a civil suit with the court to resolve their dispute.

They are seeking a court order that would require the commission to place the issue on the ballot at the next election.

The motion for summary judgment filed with the Platte County Circuit Court alleges that Missouri law requires the commissioners to place “the question contained on a valid petition submitted” before voters at the next election.

It further states that Missouri law “does not permit the commissioners to ignore or disregard a valid petition submitted pursuant to the statute by refusing to address the petition.”

In a petition filed with the court last year, the plaintiff claimed, “[T]he Platte County Commissioners are usurping the right of voters to choose for themselves whether to support a regional zoo.”

It alleged that the intent of the statute is to allow voters the privilege to approve the tax or reject it.

The commission disagrees with the plaintiff's interpretation of Missouri law. On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Bob Shaw, Platte County counselor, filed a lengthy response to the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment, as well as a cross-motion for summary judgment.

The defendant’s motion for summary judgment alleges that the “Missouri Legislature did not wish to impose a mandatory duty upon the Platte County Commission to place the zoo tax issue on the ballot as contended by plaintiffs.”

The petition states the commission had the discretion of placing the zoo tax issue on the ballot.

“The statute begins by using the word “may” in describing the role of the County Commission in authorizing the creation of the district,” stated the cross motion for summary judgment.

According to Missouri revived statute 184.503, “the governing body of any eligible county may, by resolution, authorize the creation of or participation in a district, and may impose a sales tax on all retail sales made within the eligible county…”

The defendants' argue the word “may” used in the language of the statute rather than the word “shall” gives the commission “discretionary power, not mandatory power,” to place the issue on the ballot.

It further alleges that the word “request” used in the statute when referring to the petition indicates the county commission was not obligated to place the issue on the ballot and the petition “shall not become effective unless the county commission submits it to the voters.”

Additionally, the motion alleges that the “filing of a petition is not itself sufficient to place the zoo district issues on the ballot,” citing the specific language of the statute.

The law and legislative intent behind House Bill No. 2297, which was passed 2010 by the Missouri Legislature, will now be interpreted by the court.

The court will determine whether the commission had a required duty to place the issue on the election ballot in Platte County.

The Kansas City Zoological District 1/8 cent sales tax issue appeared before registered voters in both Jackson, as well as Clay County last November. The measure passed by a slim margin in Clay County and passed by a large margin in Jackson County.

According to zoo supporters, the money obtained from the 1/8 cent sales tax would support new attractions, reduce admission prices, sponsor outreach activities, as well as fund school field trips.

In a September press release, the commission explained there reasoning on the matter. The press release stated that the commission “has reviewed and considered all of the financial obligations that would be imposed upon the taxpayers of Platte County by the creation and maintenance of a Zoological District in Jackson County.” The commission further explained that the cost of holding an unscheduled election last November would cost the county a significant sum of money.

The plaintiffs are represented by David B. Raymond, Hayley E. Hanson, Derek T. Teeter with Husch Blackwell LLP, and Philip O. Willoughby, Jr. with Gunn, Shank & Stover, PC.

Platte County Circuit Court Judge Lee Hull will hear the case.