he citizens group opposing a 300-acre development in Parkville has come forward with new allegations that city officials have violated Missouri open meeting laws.
Citizens for a Better Parkville has posted the allegations on its website, which states staff and officials purposely rushed the city’s legal process for reviewing and acting on construction proposals to limit public scrutiny.
In addition, the group claims that some aldermen have communicated about the process using private emails, also a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, which is designed to require transparency and open processes in government action, the group said.
However, city officials say they have not violated the Sunshine Law in any way at any time and contend they have proceeded with advertised, public meetings in an effort not to evade public scrutiny but to conduct city-sanctioned policies in an open, transparent manner.
Joe Parente, city administrator, said his staff and elected officials have been careful not to violate the state law and have followed city protocol in the process leading up to formal approval of the multi-faceted development plan.
One discrepancy cited by the group involves when Mayor Nan Johnston learned of the development plan. Citizens for a Better Parkville states on its website that Johnston was aware of the plan long before it appeared for the board’s approval on a Planning and Zoning agenda in September.
However, Johnston said in an email that she only had a vague notion of the proposal until it appeared on the commission’s agenda. Parente explained the issue when he said during a telephone interview on Monday “The plans weren’t even defined at this point,” he said, backing up Johnston’s contention that she did not know details of the proposal until this past fall. “It’s not until something comes before the board that it’s a formal process,” he said.
Parente added: “Until we had met with the developer at the end of May, we weren’t even sure if they were going to go ahead with this plan.”
The citizens’ group also complained that the board of aldermen essentially had virtual meetings regarding the proposed development via emails. The group used a Sunshine Law request to obtain emails between city officials and staff in which they had communicated about the development. Parente frequently communicated with small groups of aldermen before the developer, Brian Mertz, formally submitted application to the city, seeking approval for the development this past summer.
However, Parente said emails between two or three people, including aldermen and city officials, don’t violate the Sunshine Law.
In Parkville, a quorum is defined as more than three since the board is comprised of eight.
“There’s nothing inappropriate for the board or mayor to have discussions with developers or residents, “ he said. “It’s not until something comes before the board that it’s a formal process.”
In fact, Parente said there was one occasion when the city clerk, Melissa McChesney, warned aldermen in an email that they would be in jeopardy of violating the law if more aldermen and city staff joined in discussions about the plan.
“We attempt to comply the best we can,” he said. The city’s habit of documenting such discussions by copying the city clerk or city administrator where the emails are placed in permanent files also demonstrates the city’s willingness to comply with the law since the law stipulates that discussions should be part of the public body’s permanent record, which makes them opened to public perusal,” Parente said.
He added that the fact that the citizens group was able to obtain public records of such emails proves that the city’s conversations about the plan have been documented and available to the public, as required by law.
However, Andrew Alexander, an attorney with Graves Garrett in Kansas City, said Missouri case law includes instances in which entities have tried to evade law by communicating in small groups that don’t constitute a quorum. (State law requires that governmental groups must post in advance meetings in which a quorum is present.)
He said a closer look at such emails can show that some officials, for instance, could have been copied (or cc’d) but not explicitly listed as having received emails.
“In a hyper-technical sense that’s correct,” Alexander said during a telephone interview. “But, liberally construed, there are Missouri cases when less than a quorum can be subject to the Sunshine Law,” especially if the intent of the governmental body was to deliberately evade the law, he said.
However, Alexander said his comments are purely hypothetical and aren’t meant to indicate specifics regarding the city’s actions in this case.
The citizens group also has complained that meetings of the Parkville Economic Development Council (EDC) have violated the Sunshine Law because the group is a quasi-governmental body that probably had informal meetings about the proposed development long before the public was made aware of the negotiations and proposed plan. The EDC is a non-profit, non-governmental body created to promote business in Parkville, Parente said.
However, Alexander said there are instances in which the law has held an entity, such as the EDC, is “not exempt from being found a quasi-governmental body under the Sunshine Law.”
He said case law has proven because a group lists itself as a non-profit does not mean it’s not a governmental body, subject to the same rules as other governmental bodies, under the Sunshine Law.
Jason Maki, a spokesman for Citizens For A Better Parkville, added that the Parkville EDC is a quasi-governmental body because there’s an exchange of money between the city and the EDC.