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City accused of withholding public records

Citizens group may ask attorney general to intervene

by Debbie Coleman-Topi
Landmark reporter

An attorney for an organizer of a citizens' group protesting the large-scale development of property at Interstate 435 and Missouri 45 in Parkville claims the city has withheld some information from records requests and demanded compliance.

The original requests for records information were made this past fall by an attorney who represents a member of the group Citizens for a Better Parkville.

The end of the attorney’s five-page letter to city staff states that failure to comply with the letter's demands, which include the release of full records and adequate written explanation for withheld documents and preserving documents that could be relevant to litigation, will result in referral to the Missouri Attorney General for review and/or action.

The letter, dated Dec. 12, 2018, specifies that demands must be met by Dec. 19, 2018 in order to avoid attorney general referral.

In a telephone interview, attorney Andrew Alexander of Graves Garrett LLC said the matter had not been referred to the attorney general's office nor had a new deadline been established for the city to comply to the list of demands after the city missed the deadline.

Parkville City Administrator Joe Perente said the city has hired an Information Technology (IT) professional to finish compiling information as outlined in the letter from the attorney. He said a professional consultant was hired because the small city staff does not include such a position, and existing personnel lack the expertise to obtain such detailed electronic information.

Parente said he's surprised the matter had been shared with the newspaper.

“Why (the person associated with Citizens For a Better Parkville) chose to get a news report out of this, I don't know,” he said during a telephone interview. “We've already provided thousands of pages,” he said, referring to the city's response to information requests through the Sunshine Law.

He said the city's attorney has contacted Alexander each week to provide updates about information gathering. But Alexander said the city's past and current efforts are inadequate.

“That's not necessarily compliance at all,” he said during a telephone interview. “That's making an effort to comply.”

Alexander said whether the city will comply fully with the list of demands “remains to be seen.” He added, “The facts we listed (in the letter) show some pretty substantial red flags about the city's compliance.”

But Parente said the amount of information requested is very extensive.

“That just takes a lot of time to put together so we're doing our best,” he said, adding that some information may not exist since aldermen, for instance, do not work from City Hall and use home or personal cell phones and emails to communicate on city matters.

Another reason some information has not been yet been provided because of a lack of clarity about requested information.

For instance, when the group requested emails regarding certain topics, the initial emails were provided, but stopped short of providing full texts of each email, essentially carbon copies that contain the same information as the original email.

Parente added that the city has directed “our information technologist to do a global search” and the contractor continues to work toward providing all requested information.

“Anything we can reasonably get our hands on…we'll provide to them,” he said. As to a time frame for providing all requested information, Parente said, “we should have a better handle on it this week.”

The letter further explains what Alexander and his client see as non-compliance:

“At minimum, the city has failed to make reasonable efforts to comply with Missouri law,” referring to Missouri's Sunshine Law, the state's open meetings and records law. The letter also states city officials may have “knowingly and purposefully failed to produce responsive records.”

While the city has complied with some of the group's records requests, which include emails, voicemails and other electronic communication, the letter claims the city has failed to respond to nearly 2,000 emails “from partially-produced threads… a concerning dearth of records from officials whose determinations…affect the public.”

In addition, the letter states, many of City Administrator Joe Parente's emails were produced only as PDF's, which “is not a native format” and hides some information, including the recipients of all emails. In addition, the PDFs contained “redactions for which no grounds have been provided.”

In another case, the concerned citizen sought information showing search terms and email accounts used by city officials. To that request, the city only provided the time spent gathering documents for the requests and “does not contain any search terms or records identifying email accounts that were searched.”

The letter also states that requests for transcripts of voicemails from Stephen Lachky, community development director, only produced a few and there were none from the aldermen or any other city staff.

The information is missing despite the mayor's information that she received voicemails concerning the development on Aug. 27 and Sept. 9. A voicemail from another area developer to Parente is among calls listed, but its content was not included in the provided information, the letter states.

“If they were destroyed, who did it and when?” the letter asks.

Parkville officials only provided a few voicemails from Lachky and Mayor Nan Johnston, whom “is known to have had calls related to the development with (a concerned citizen) and developer Brian Mertz.”

In addition, a word document shows additional calls by the mayor to an area resident and Alexander’s client, but does not provide the content of those calls.
City officials also offered no SMS messages, or text messages about the developments.

Also allegedly missing were the content of emails from Parente to Nathan BeVelle, executive director of the Parkville Economic Development Council in which Parente told him to organize meetings between aldermen and the developer, but instructing not to invite more than three aldermen to each meeting in order to avoid a “quorum” of the board of aldermen's eight-member board.

In answer to requests concerning communication between Johnston and attorneys representing the developments, the city stated no such records exist despite an email produced later that showed there was communication between Johnston and the developer and his attorney.

Members of the Parkville Board of Aldermen and the mayor, in some cases, used private accounts to discuss the proposed development, but were careful to avoid the appearance of a quorum (which, by law, constitutes an official meeting bound by open meeting requirements) by structure of a “hub-and-spoke conspiracy,” the letter states.

“Such clandestine efforts do not result in on-public meetings or records.”