he Missouri Attorney General’s request for information from the City of Parkville regarding alleged violations of the Sunshine Law is drawing accusations from both sides in the dispute over open records and meetings.
The head of a citizens’ group, which sparked the review, alleges missteps by the city in a process designed to promote government transparency while city officials balk at terminology asserting the attorney general’s involvement as a “probe” or “investigation .”
The statewide attorney general’s office, which is led by Eric Schmitt, sent a letter to the city March 20, asking for a response to complaints that city officials are withholding information in violation of the state law. The office, which asked for a reply by Wednesday, April 10, sent the letter to the city in response to a nine-page letter of complaint sent in January by attorneys for Jason Maki, a spokesman for Citizens for a Better Parkville. The group is opposed to the city’s handling of a 350-acre development that includes residential, light industrial and retail space on vacant land at Interstate 435 and Missouri 45.
The complaint lists several ways the group believes city officials have violated the state’s Sunshine Law, including holding private meetings with developer Brian Mertz and his attorney months before the issue was discussed in open planning and zoning and board of aldermen meetings. In addition, the citizens’ group has obtained information through Sunshine requests that City Administrator Joe Parente told city staff and elected officials to avoid a quorum at their unofficial meetings, so as not to violate the state law.
Meanwhile, city officials have stated requested information, which targets communication between staff, elected officials, developer and his attorney, regarding the development, is “voluminous” and a burden for a small city such as Parkville to manage.
Therefore, Parente said the city hired an information technology (IT) specialist to handle the requests. As reported in last week’s Landmark, the city issued the following response about the inquiry: “Since September, Mr. Maki has made 24 Sunshine Requests, each requesting numerous different types of records. Many of the requests lack reasonable specificity for a record (e.g., a staff policy report sent to the planning commission), and includes broad requests for “all communications or records related to a subject” which results in the retrieval of voluminous amounts of records. As of March 8, 2019, the city has released 50,525 documents, letters, memoranda, reports and email communications to the requestor. City staff continues to review thousands of additional records and are producing documents on a rolling basis.
“The City of Parkville welcomes the use of the Sunshine Law to promote government transparency and accountability. We continue to respond to request for records and to operate our government openly and in full compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Act. We welcome a review by any government body or entity.”
Maki said information supplied under the Sunshine Law (among requests the city has honored,) shows the IT specialist only spent a little more than three hours obtaining information per requests. Instead, most information has come from searches by city staff, including the city administrator, city attorney and development director. Maki said his group is suspicious that high-level employees are managing such menial searches.
“All signs point to spending way too much time looking at these documents,” Maki said during a telephone interview. In addition, Maki said, some of the responses the city has provided have been duplicates, leaving the impression that they have supplied more information than reality.
The city is requiring an additional $3,800 in payment to release additional documents, Maki said. (He has paid about $6,000 for information so far for provided information.) Maki said the city has not supplied documents since March and said officials are stating they will release documents when additional money is paid. Maki contends the additional payments are a “retaliation” and meant to deter him and others from seeking additional communications.
Maki said he estimates the city has provided only about half of the documents requested and, therefore, expects the city’s bill to increase as more documents are released.
Mayor Nan Johnston wrote an email reacting to an article in last week’s Landmark, stating references to the attorney general’s request for information does not constitute an investigation and The Landmark’s reference to the attorney general’s letter as a “probe” represents “unbelievably irresponsible journalism.” Instead, the letter seeks information, “not an investigation,” she wrote.
“Once they receive our responses, they will determine whether an investigation will be opened…You are trying to ruin my reputation and the reputation of the city of Parkville,” she wrote.
Contacted prior to last week’s article, a press spokesman for the attorney general’s office declined public comment on the office’s involvement with the situation at Parkville, including declining public document as to whether the office notes any difference between “review” and “investigation.” The attorney general’s letter to the city said the “review” may result in enforcement action against the city under state statute. There is nothing in the letter to suggest a “review” is a separate matter from an “investigation,” and there is nothing in the letter to indicate an “investigation” is only opened after a “review,” as Johnston suggests.
Ed Greim, an attorney with the Graves Garrett Law firm in Kansas City, who filed the original nine-page letter to the attorney general’s office seeking input, said the city is attempting to downplay the state probe.
“…Let’s call it what it is,” he said during a telephone interview. “It’s an investigation, it’s an inquiry, it’s a review, it’s a voyage of discovery,” he said. “It’s all of those things.”
Greim added that the attorney general’s role is to resolve Sunshine disputes.
“People almost never sue for a sunshine allegation,” he said. “That’s why we have an attorney general to look at these cases.”
He expects the city and statewide officials to communicate “back and forth” in questions and answers before eventually reaching a resolution. Greim said the state’s options are many. If not satisfied the city has fully answered questions, they may be forced to act.
“Sometimes, a suit will force compliance,” he said and added, “I hope it’s a sign to Parkville to get serious.”