A lawsuit alleging the City of Parkville has violated the Missouri Sunshine Law on eight occasions has been filed in Platte County Circuit Court.
The alleged violations of the state’s law pertaining to open records are outlined in a 13-page petition filed by Jason Maki of the group known as Citizens for a Better Parkville.
The court action seeks an injunction to force the city to release all public records to Maki’s requests for records under the Sunshine Law. It also asks that a civil penalty of $5,000 be levied against the City of Parkville for each of the eight violations identified.
Also sought is financial recovery to the plaintiff of all fees and expenses related to the Sunshine requests and the court action.
The case will be heard in the courtroom of Platte County Circuit Court Judge James Van Amburg.
The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 25, which is two days before Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston was ruled by the Missouri Ethics Commission to have been guilty on four counts of violation of state ethics laws dealing with campaign finances. The MEC ordered a fine of $5,242 for Johnston.
City officials were served with the notice of the Sunshine lawsuit on Thursday, March 5.
Beginning in September of 2018, Maki began requesting records from Parkville under the Missouri Sunshine Law related to the city’s handling of a controversial series of proposed developments near I-435 and Hwy. 45. He submitted 14 requests between September 2018 and Jan. 16, 2019. For those 14 requests, Parkville asked for a total of $4,130 in estimated fees, which Maki promptly paid in each instance and the city produced responsive records to those 14 requests.
On Jan. 18 and Jan. 23, 2019, Maki submitted his 15th and 16th Sunshine requests. The city requested $500 fee to respond to them which Maki promptly paid. The city said that no records were responsive to his 16th request. However, the city never refunded Maki’s $500 fee.
Then on March 8, 2019, Parkville informed Maki that it had more records responsive to his first 14 requests but that it would not make them available unless and until he paid an additional $2,757.67 above the earlier fee he had already paid for that request.
Maki has not yet paid that extra requested fee or been permitted to collect those extra responsive documents.
Maki, in a complaint he filed with the state attorney general, maintains those additional fees the city says he owes are not legal.
“The city admits that (88 percent) of what they seek for those earlier requests is predominantly attributable to its high-ranking officials’ review of the documents. Of the total amount for requests 1-14, $6,222.56 is the work of the top city officials,” Maki maintains in his complaint to the attorney general, whose office continues to investigate the matter.
“A city administrator is not required to evaluate whether a record responds to a simple records request and it is unclear why the city would need to manually review each email to identify closed records. This appears to be the result of irresponsible implementation of electronic communication in government, where records are presumed open,” states Maki’s complaint to the attorney general.
“Viewing the city’s admission in the most flattering light, those fees are unreasonable because they merely reflect the city passing significant expenses of its irresponsible implementation of electronic communications and records onto records requestors,” the complaint to the attorney general states.
Maki submitted his 17th Sunshine request on Jan. 23, 2019. The city requested $250 to make those records available, which Maki says he promptly paid. When the city had compiled those records for his 17th request, it refused to make them available to Maki until he paid the extra $2,757 it attributed to his first 14 requests.
According to the lawsuit, the city likewise responded to six other Maki requests, in each situation accepting the full requested fee from Maki identifying and compiling responsive records, but then refusing to make those records available to him.
In each case related to the first seven counts of alleged violations, Parkville cited the allegedly outstanding fees related to requests 1-14 as its reason for refusing to make public the records involved in Maki’s 17th and later requests.
Maki’s lawsuit says in each case Parkville has failed to produce responsive records without reasonable cause, in violation of the Missouri Sunshine Law.
While Maki has paid the specific fees for each of these requests, the city has refused to turn over the records by citing alleged fees attributable to an earlier unrelated request.
EIGHTH ALLEGED VIOLATION INVOLVES MEDIA COMMUNICATIONS
Parkville’s eighth violation of the Sunshine Law as alleged in the petition deals with a very recent request pertaining to communications between the media and city officials, communications among city officials about the media, and any records reflecting such communications to or from media.
Maki submitted this request on Jan. 17 of this year. On Jan. 23 the city responded, noting it would require $500 and 30 days to provide access to those records. Maki says he promptly paid the $500 fee.
On Feb. 21, the city presented records in response to the request. But Maki says “notably absent from the city’s production were communications from certain members of the media known to have been in communication between Jan. 1, 2018 and Jan. 17, 2020.”
The city failed to provide access to certain records retained by the city reflecting communications with or about the media, Maki’s suit alleges.
The city’s failure to make such records available violates the Sunshine Law, the suit maintains.
ABOUT THE RECORDS BEING HELD
In addition, The Landmark has learned the city withheld the same records from another requestor. Damien Fosmoe of Parkville submitted a Sunshine request for the same records. Interestingly, the city refused to furnish the records to Fosmoe, citing Maki’s alleged outstanding fees as the reason for denial.
“Those records will be made available when the city has been paid for the outstanding costs associated with responding to Mr. Maki’s requests,” Melissa McChesney, city clerk, wrote to Fosmoe.
Maki says the city has had no cause to delay the public access to the requested records for over a year.
“The records in question contain information vital to the public’s understanding of how their government works. They include information about the decision making of elected officials, the use of taxpayer funds and the reallocation of millions of taxpayer dollars from local schools to private corporations,” Maki said this week.
Maki says the city “has attempted to withhold these records on account of unrelated and possibly illegal fees that they allege are owed for other records they are withholding as well; a matter which is currently under review by the attorney general. Their conduct has violated the Sunshine Law.”
“This matter is very important to the local residents and taxpayers because the city’s conduct is antithetical and deleterious to the transparency demanded by Missouri’s Sunshine Law—a transparency that is essential to guaranteeing that our form of government remains free of corruption and is accountable to the people for and by whom it exists,” said Maki.
KNOWINGLY AND PURPOSEFULLY
The lawsuit alleges Parkville has “knowingly and purposefully” violated the Sunshine Law.
“Parkville has at all relevant times known that the Sunshine Law does not permit it to deny access to public records when the requested fee for those records has been indisputably paid in full,” the suit states.
The lawsuit goes on to detail that “some of Parkville’s public officials have expressed animus toward Mr. Maki because of his efforts to provide the public with information about the way the Parkville city government works, including in relation to controversial commercial development.”
It goes on to say: “Certain Parkville officials’ animus toward Mr. Maki and desire to keep the records he seeks from the public view have motivated the city to purposefully refuse to permit Mr. Maki access to those records at issue.”
PARKVILLE’S RESPONSE TO THE LAWSUIT
The Landmark reached out to Mayor Nan Johnston and Joe Parente, city administrator, for comment in response to the lawsuit. Johnston responded by saying “Joe has the city’s statement.”
Parente, responding by email, said:
“The City of Parkville has been served with a lawsuit by Jason Maki concerning some of the Sunshine requests he has submitted to the city. The lawsuit has been referred to the city’s legal counsel to defend. While we cannot comment on pending litigation, the city has acted in good faith since September 2018 when Mr. Maki submitted his first of 33 requests asking for different categories of public records. Since this time, city staff has made available in excess of 50,000 documents. The City of Parkville operates openly and transparently. We look forward to defending our actions and proving compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Law.”