wo Platte County taxing entities are unexpectedly linked by a shared practice. Both the Platte County R-3 School District and City of Parkville are accused of possible violations of a law aimed at keeping public records accessible to those who foot the bill—the taxpayers.
Platte County R-3’s recent responses to requests for public information have come under scrutiny in The Landmark. The most recent topic involved requests surrounding the recent separation of employment of Dr. Chad Searcey, who had served as principal at Compass Elementary. Searcey in June sent what were deemed inappropriate tweets to a young school shooting survivor/noted gun control activist. The tweets showed Searcey and his sons holding and shooting guns.
Searcey was placed on administrative leave and then months later the district reached a separation agreement with him, in which the district paid Searcey $275,000 in essence to go away.
The Landmark put in a Sunshine request for a copy of the separation agreement. R-3 denied the request, claiming the separation agreement is a “personnel document” and therefore not required to be released to the public. That legal opinion differs from the opinion of the attorney for the Missouri Press Association, and other legal observers.
Ivan Foley, owner/publisher of The Landmark, recently wrote in his Between the Lines column that the newspaper has had no problems acquiring separation agreements reached between other school districts and other taxing entities and employees of those entities. No other entity has made the claim to the newspaper that a separation agreement is a protected personnel document.
R-3 has also recently told an anonymous person who filed a Sunshine request for “any and all emails in the possession of the school district from June 12, 2019 to July 2, 2019 that contain the name of Chad Searcey or any variance of the name Chad Searcey.” that the district would need payment of $709.25 to review and research documents subject to the request. The time frame mentioned is when the Searcey controversy broke.
The Sunshine Law states that such tasks should be performed by “the lowest salaried employees capable of searching, researching, and copying the records.” The law further states that a public governmental body can charge “up to 10 cents per page for standard copies, the average hourly rate of pay for clerical staff to duplicate documents.”
The district had not responded to a request for comment on this topic this week. There are similarities to a situation at the City of Parkville, where an investigation by the Missouri Attorney General is underway to determine if the city has improperly handled requests for public information.
Similarly, the City of Parkville, involved in a more-than-year-long dispute with an organization known as Citizens for a Better Parkville for their handling of a massive development, also has used its highest-paid employee to sift records in response to requests by Jason Maki, head of Citizens for a Better Parkville. The city neglected to utilize the expertise of a paid technology consultant to cull the records, instead preferring to leave the task to City Administrator Joe Parente.
Parente did not respond to an emailed request for comment by deadline for this article.
Ironically, both the school district and the city have “custodians of record,” as referenced in the state statute governing records release.
The city’s is city clerk Melissa Chesney and the school district’s custodian is Vicki Diggs, executive administrative assistant to the superintendent and the board of education.
However, what some might see as mundane record gathering tasks are, apparently being performed by the highest paid employees of both taxing entities, leading those who seek information to wonder if the district and city are selectively deciding which information they want to release.
The law addresses who is to pay for separating opened from closed information due to a Sunshine request and that payment rests with the public body, not the taxpayer, said Jean Maneke, an attorney representing the Missouri Press Association.
A recent St. Louis Circuit Court decision made that determination and a higher court case on the same matter currently is pending, but a decision is still several months away, she said.
Maneke, a former Kansas City Star business reporter, said she has noticed a trend in which voters are more aware of the Sunshine Law after the statute was thrust into the limelight during allegations of abuse by former Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff.
A decline in the number of newspapers and lack of reporting also has led public officials to be less law-conscious since there are fewer gatekeepers covering public meetings.
“I do think it’s a valid concern,” Maneke said, adding that governmental bodies “don’t have as much attention as they used to.” The former journalist added, “This (governmental transparency) is a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.”