The Parkville Board of Aldermen recently approved increasing the amount the city is paying a public relations firm by about $8,500 to more effectively communicate with residents.
The 170 percent increase will pay the firm to develop a communications plan and media policy and finance training and other related services for both staff and elected officials, according to a policy report from a late October board meeting.
During a telephone interview, City Administrator Joe Parente said the increased use is meant to better address the city’s communications with residents. However, he did not answer a reporter’s question about whether the increased use of the firm is in response to negative information from a citizens’ group which is critical of the city’s management of a massive development and other issues.
Instead, Parente said the city has used the services of the firm in various capacities the past two years, including to facilitate the city’s past two strategic planning workshops, where staff and elected officials set goals. He said the additional cost will allow city officials to “ramp up our efforts to do more communications with our residents.”
Parente added: “There’s nothing wrong with this. Every community does it. Some bigger cities have someone on staff.”
A spokesperson for the Missouri Municipal League (MML), which offers services and information to cities on a wide range of issues, confirmed that many larger cities employ a full-time communications staffer while it’s common for smaller cities, such as Parkville, which has a current population of about 6,500, to contract with outside firms for specific services. Communications specialist Laura Holloway said cities are tasked with handling a lot of issues and sometimes need help in the form of professional services. The league offers some information at its annual conference, which has had sessions about social media and other forms of communication issues during its last few events. She added that Parkville city staff attended the 2017 and 2018 conferences.
Jason Maki, a spokesman for Citizens for a Better Parkville, a citizens’ group that has opposed the way the city has handled many aspects of the development, said he’s upset city officials are trying to put a positive spin on their actions, especially since he believes the city often is not acting in the best interest of citizens. The $52 million in taxpayer incentives the city has granted to the developer, Brian Mertz, of Parkville Development, is an example, he said. By hiring a communications firm, the city is “using the taxpayers’ money to assist them in managing its own image in light of some of the very serious concerns that are being brought to light and will continue to percolate in the near future,” he said in an email.
He is referring not only to a potential review by the Missouri State Auditor but also an investigation by the Missouri Attorney General into Sunshine Law questions and a Missouri Ethics Commission query into Mayor Nan Johnston’s acceptance of possible illegal campaign contributions by corporations.
Maki said he fears the city will use the communications firm to help promote sales tax increases and other forms of taxes the city hopes to impose. The taxes are necessary, Maki has said, to offset the costs of the city’s tax incentives to Mertz. He said the city is “going to use taxpayer money (payments to the firm) to lobby to convince the taxpayers to raise taxes,” he said. “If the federal government would try this…people would scream bloody murder. But, in Parkville, apparently it’s okay.”
A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, which announced a few months ago it is investigating city practices, confirmed the investigation is ongoing. The premise of that investigation is to determine if the city has responded legally to Sunshine requests, or requests for information under the state’s open meetings law. But the spokesman offered no additional information, including when the investigation might conclude.
In addition, many in the citizens’ group also object to a city-generated letter mailed last week to residents. The letter in effect discourages residents from signing the petition the group is circulating to initiate an investigation by the Missouri State Auditor.
Maki said many residents are complaining about the letter on social media, stating they view the letter as “distasteful.” The letter, which lists City Administrator Joe Parente as author, also lists the names of the mayor and board of aldermen and states costs for a Missouri auditor investigation will be charged to taxpayers and implies a state audit merely duplicate city audits routinely performed by outside firms.
Maki said the letter is the city’s attempt to “lobby its own citizens from invoking a statutorily-provided state audit of the city,” adding that the city’s rational for not being audited is their “trustworthiness.” He added that the purpose of the audit is to verify the legality of city actions and decisions, “exactly like the need for additional taxes and the excessive use of taxpayer backed incentives.” He added that the letter “is a strange thing to spend (city) money and time doing if they truly have nothing to hide.”
The city letter in part states: “Parkville is fully compliant with state law regarding the development approval of the Creekside Project and other recent economic development projects. Should the state audit take place, the board of aldermen and city staff will fully cooperate.”
A spokesperson for the Missouri Auditor’s office said the office received a request form in early October and forms were sent out mid-October. Petitioners have until October 2020 to collect 537 valid signatures. State law dictates that a completed, signed petition is the only way to request an audit. .