Platte County resident believes the city of Parkville is retaliating for his open records requests by stating they plan to charge him more than $19,000 for city time and effort in meeting the requests.
Jason Maki, a member of a citizens group opposing a 350-acre planned development in Parkville, said the fee he was being charged for records pertaining to the development increased by four times the original estimate after Maki’s attorney filed a letter of complaint with the Missouri Attorney General.
The complaint listed what Maki believes are improprieties in the city’s handling of the planned development.
However, City Administrator Joe Parente said in an email that Maki’s claims are his “attempt to get propaganda into your newspaper” and that the $19,000 was intended to communicate with citizens how much time and effort the city has used responding to Maki’s myriad requests for information.
“That figure…includes 262 hours of staff time and so far has resulted in the production of in excess of 25,000 records,” Parente said in an email. “As you may recall, Mr. Maki has made dozens of requests for records including many asking for ‘all records’ related to a topic. The time spent has been extensive.”
Much of the $19,000 mentioned at the meeting appears to be payment for the city attorney for legal counsel regarding the open records requests, a claim Maki’s attorney, Eddie Greim, says is illegal under Missouri law.
However, Parente said he stated at the meeting that the city could not charge for city attorney time but wanted citizens to know the city attorney had spent time on the requests. While it’s common for cities to charge nominal fees for filling open meetings requests, cities often waive such charges if the requests are in the public interest, said Greim, of the Graves Garrett law firm.
In a telephone interview, Greim called the $19,000 fee “unprecedented and not in good faith.”
Because the city has not presented Maki with a bill, but just discussed the additional charge at length at the meeting, the city “is simply using it as a PR (public relations) talking point,” he said.
Maki and his attorney were alerted to the city attorney charge when Sunshine records listing expenses referred to time spent by a city staff person named “Chris,” which is the name of the city attorney, who is on retainer and not a city employee.
“That is absolutely unlawful under the Sunshine Law,” Greim said. “We absolutely think the city has been evasive and we don’t know the extent of it yet,” he said, adding that the city has not informed Maki that it is finished filling requests.
At the meeting earlier this month, city staff and board members engaged in a lengthy discussion about the city’s difficulty in meeting requests.
The citizens’ group–known as Citizens for a Better Parkville–has been a vocal opponent to the city’s handling of the massive development planned for the area at Interstate 435 and Missouri 45 in Parkville. The group, which has a website, claims corruption in the city’s handling of the development.
At the same meeting in which the board discussed Maki’s fees, members voted unanimously to approve a $10.5 million Community Improvement District (CID) to oversee the incentives to the developer. Maki believes the city’s discussion about the fees was timed to coincide with the board’s vote on the CID.
“They knew we would be watching,” Maki said. “They were trying to warn me…to fractionalize, suppress and intimidate me from collecting future (Sunshine) requests…ones that really probably are very interesting and newsworthy,” he said during a telephone interview.
The citizens’ group also objects to the city’s use of tax incentives, such as the CID. The tax incentive offsets costs to the developer, Brain Mertz, while transferring fees for some improvements to the area to residents, in the form of taxes.
So far, Maki has paid the city $5,300 for records requests. While he readily paid the first amount, he objects to the increase.
“No one would accept a 400 percent increase in costs over an estimate for auto repair, home services, etc.,” Maki said in the email.
Greim added that cities often take advantage of a clause in the Missouri law that allows cities to waive such fees if they are from residents seeking transparency in government (as opposed to fees from an attorney or a corporation seeking information).
Maki and Greim also have said they believe the city is not being forthcoming with all information requested under Missouri law, instead providing duplications in documents. Maki estimates such copies may have occurred in as many as 76 percent of requested information.
Greim said he also objects to the city’s use of City Administrator Joe Parente’s time and efforts in filling Sunshine requests, stating he has spent 106 of his nearly 130 work-hours in January fulfilling the requests.
Parente earlier told a [Landmark reporter] that the city had hired an Information Technology (IT) professional to compile the information, stating that city staff did not have time.
“It is improbable that the city administrator is required for such tasks,” Maki said in the email, also referring to Parente’s background as a red flag. Parente “is no stranger to open records disputes,” Maki said, adding that he “was accused of destroying public records in a previous role as county administrator in Illinois.”
Maki said the city’s records searches are intentionally vague and, in one instance, a single USB drive contained more than 9,500 electronic documents, without noting records requests to which they applied. Maki said, “I can only assume they did that to confuse…”
Parente said the city will notify Maki of final costs after all records requests are filled. He said, “This amount will be assessed based on what is permitted by the Sunshine Act, and that figure will not be the same as what the request cost us to fulfill” and will not include the attorney’s time.