Parkville citizens’ group hopes a recent court ruling will positively impact a pending Missouri State Auditor investigation into actions at the City of Parkville.
Citizens for a Better Parkville recently alerted city officials of their intent to request a state audit if officials continue to refuse to hand over documents requested under Missouri’s open meetings law.
In a suit filed by the Clay County Commission against Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, the Cole County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the statewide office and said the auditor’s actions are not limited to a narrow definition of financial audits, but also can include “performance audits,” a term describing a broader look at government records and actions.
The distinction is important because Parkville officials have said their budget process is sound and they welcome a review of such records. But a spokesman for the citizens’ group said their complaint is not with simple accounting practices, but an overall culture in which officials routinely violate the state’s Sunshine Law, aimed at government transparency.
Accusations range from holding informal meetings in small groups where officials are sure to keep from having a quorum (a quorum constitutes an official meeting and, by law, must be held in public view), said Jason Maki, the group’s spokesman.
In addition, the city has hosted at least one public meeting at a random location outside of the city’s usual city hall venue and placed notice, not on the city’s website as is the normal practice, but on a small paper sign in tiny font in a corner of City Hall, Maki said.
The citizens’ group has given officials a deadline of early November to request a state audit on their own.
The city continues to hold documents requested under the Sunshine Law by Maki.
Many of those documents are communications between city officials about a massive development currently under construction which the group believes will prove city officials violated the Sunshine Law in numerous instances.
If city officials don’t hand over documents in a few days, the citizens’ group plans to begin gathering signatures on a petition, a formal step to launch an investigation by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway.
Parkville officials have stated the requested records are available for pickup at city hall. But officials are charging thousands of dollars in addition to money already paid for some released documents. Maki and his attorneys have said the charges are a clear violation of the Sunshine Law, which allows only nominal fees for copying paper documents. In addition, Maki said he already has paid several thousand dollars for already-released documents.
In the lawsuit filed by the Clay County Commission, county commissioners in Clay claimed the auditor’s request for some information, including minutes of closed session, went beyond her constitutional authority.
But the court decision states that even closed meeting minutes are a matter of public record and can’t legally be withheld. The auditor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis area attorney and founder of the Government Accountability Project, which fights for transparency at all levels of government, said his recent suit against the Missouri legislature is indicative of a larger pattern of government corruption which he says is occurring with ever more frequency.
“It’s getting tougher to get documents,” he said, adding that there’s a correlation between mega sums of “dark money” and the troubling trend of hiding documents. He said officials attempt to hide the process that leads to public policy when these groups use their donations to wield influence.
“They don’t truly believe documentation should be closed,” he said of lawmakers, instead stating their goal is “to protect political interests.”
The legislature even adopted House Rule 127 in response to a constitutional amendment approved by voters which requires government to uphold the state’s Sunshine Law. Pedroli said House Rule 127, enacted in January, is aimed at allowing lawmakers to keep certain public documents out of public view.
Pedroli said the only way to force compliance with the Sunshine Law is through the courts.
“When I send a Sunshine request, I get compliance, because they know I sue,” he said.
He cited former Gov. Eric Greitens’ use of a timed application that automatically deleted text messages as an example of ever-enhancing methods of concealing information. He said the desecration, and in some cases, the demise of print media, also has exacerbated the problem.
“They fear coverage,” he said of the threat posed by print media exposure, which also adds a layer of “checks and balances.”