fficials with the city of Parkville sent an area resident a bill for an additional $7,000 to cover remaining costs of fulfilling numerous Sunshine requests.
The new amount is in addition to about $5,000 the resident already paid to the city to cover the cost of providing open records. Officials said the bill will help defer time and expense in fielding requests for information about a planned 350-acre residential and light industrial development.
Attorneys representing Jason Maki, the head of a citizens’ group opposing the city’s handling of the development, said the open meetings requests were filed under laws aimed at safeguarding government transparency.
The latest payment request prompted Maki’s attorneys to mail a letter to the Missouri Attorney General’s office, reporting the bill and stating that the city had violated open meeting laws and claiming the added expenses are unreasonable under the law.
The most recent letter is the second Maki’s attorneys have sent to the Missouri Attorney General. The first, dated Jan. 9, was a nine-page account of what Maki and his legal counsel believe are the city’s illegal actions under the Sunshine Law.
In the city’s letter explaining the additional requested payment, officials said they will supply additional information about correspondence between city officials and the developer and his attorney once the $7,000 bill has been paid. The letter also states that the city has provided more than 28,000 “unique electronic records to date.”
But Maki and his attorneys contend some of the supplied documents are duplicates. Maki said the actual number of records received is nearly 12,250.
City officials earlier stated that, although they could charge Maki $19,000 for records requests, they did not intend to bill him for the total cost of filling requests concerning telephone and email correspondence between officials, the developer and his attorney.
City Administrator Joe Perente is quoted in an earlier Landmark article as stating the total amount mentioned was merely an effort to inform the public about how much money and time has been spent fulfilling the requests. Parente said the city hired an information technology (IT) expert to handle the “dozens and dozens” of requests for information.
Maki and other members of Citizens for a Better Parkville said some information provided proves officials met prior to a September 2018 meeting in which the development plans were first rolled out to the public. Sunshine Law prohibits private governmental correspondence and meetings in order to maintain transparency and to safeguard “the public’s right to know,” a phrase underlying the basis for the law. Some of the Sunshine requested items appear on the citizens’ website.
While it’s a common practice for governmental entities to charge nominal fees for paper copies associated with providing such information under the Sunshine Law, Maki’s attorney said he believes the bill oversteps such standards.
“The city now appears to be manipulating its release of records to thwart public involvement in the political process,” the latest letter to the attorney general states.
“The City’s estimated and actual document production time frames and fees are unreasonable under the Sunshine Law,” according to the letter.
A Landmark newspaper article was published after a board of aldermen meeting in which city officials discussed the extensive time and expense the city is expending to fulfill the requests. City Administrator Joe Parente was quoted in the article stating the requests were so numerous the city had to hire an information technology expert to fulfill the requests. He argued city officials are too busy managing the city and responding to residents to have time to fill Sunshine requests.
However, Maki said the requests, which were filed on his behalf by his attorneys, are not only legal but also consist of information that should initially have been made available to the public.
The latest letter to the Missouri Attorney General discussed a break-down of the $19,000 the city has indicated Maki has racked up so far.
The letter states an IT professional spent 11 hours fulfilling Sunshine requests while other city officials, including the city attorney and Parente, two of the highest paid officials on staff, had spent more hours responding to requests.
“These fees are not permissible under the Sunshine law,” the latest letter to the attorney general states. For instance, Parente had spent nearly 130 hours at nearly $54 per hour at the end of January, according to the letter.
“The city is likely charging unreasonable fees for access to public records, producing records in an unreasonable slow manner and manipulating the release of records to thwart the public’s meaningful participation in the governmental process,” the letter states.
By deadline, Parente and Johnston had not responded to a reporter’s requests for comment about the latest fees. City officials earlier argued that Maki should not be allowed to protest the development since he is not a resident of Parkville.
The Platte County resident, however, has said the development will impact him just as much as his Parkville neighbors since he lives across the street from one of the planned subdivisions.
Maki and his attorneys also have filed open records requests for information from the Parkville Economic Development Council (EDC). But an attorney representing the EDC, which the citizens’ group claims is a quasi-governmental body, said they will not release documents related to the development. The response letter states the group does not fall under the same guidelines as governing governmental bodies
Maki’s attorneys claim they believe the EDC is subject to the same Sunshine Law requests. Maki objects to the EDC having as members Johnston, Parente and Mertz.
“They have divided loyalties,” Maki said.
Maki added that he has an interpretation for the refusal to supply records. He said, “What they’re doing is challenging me to sue them.”