embers of a Parkville citizens’ group, who have been vocal critics of the way the city is managed, have a new concern: the nearly $40,000 of taxpayer money city officials have spent in a legal battle over the release of public records and to a public relations firm to improve the city’s communication with residents.
In the past few months, the city has already doled out about $19,000 in attorneys’ fees in a civil lawsuit filed by Jason Maki over the city’s refusal to release documents related to the Creekside Development, a more than 300-acre residential, retail and light industrial development under construction at the west end of the city near Hwy. 45 and I-435.
The city’s legal fees thus far in defending itself in the Sunshine lawsuit brought by Maki include nearly $4,500 in April; nearly $3,000 in May and nearly $11,500 in June.
The Landmark acquired documentation of the legal charges via a recent Sunshine request.
At issue in his lawsuit are numerous documents Maki requested under the state’s Sunshine Law, which was designed to guide transparency with government action and funds.
While city officials released some documents requested, they continue to hold others that Maki contends should be available for public scrutiny.
Many of the withheld communications are believed to be between the city’s mayor, staff, and board of aldermen, and some were conducted on officials’ private emails. The city’s attorneys argue the documents are not privy to public review. In fact, the city disputes that the city’s aldermen are even parties in the dispute, although Maki continues to list them as defendants.
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston has publicly stated on multiple occasions that some city elected officials at times have used personal email accounts to discuss city business, and Maki’s lawsuit sought subpoenas for those emails.
Maki maintains those emails, because they pertain to city business, should be open records.
“The city has no cause to delay the public access to the requested records for over a year,” Maki says.
He added that such records provide “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.”
Brett Krause, another member of the citizens’ group, echoed Maki’s sentiments. As for the money spent on attorney fees, he finds the spending ironic.
“As a citizen, you have to wonder, what are they hiding?” he asked and added that the city is spending “taxpayer dollars to fight a law that’s there to protect taxpayers.”
Krause said at a time when many municipalities are facing too much debt compounded by too little revenue due to the coronavirus, his city’s leaders are spending taxpayer money “like it’s a boom.”
He said he wonders how city officials will recover from their expenditures.
“Are we going to raise taxes or cut people at city hall?” he asked during a Tuesday morning telephone interview.
However, Krause said he is anxious to find the positive in officials’ actions.
“To put a silver lining on it, I applaud the city for at least starting to try,” he said of city officials’ hiring of Shockey Consulting, the Kansas City public relations firm.
When city officials first announced the hiring of the firm, they estimated they would spend about $8,500 per year. But the city’s July accounts payable report, published earlier this week, shows the city has so far spent more than double the amount originally stated.
Krause said it is “ultimately disappointing” that city leaders would need assistance in a “basic job function of communicating with citizens.”
In addition, Krause said he fears that legal expenditures will not only continue at their current pace but will accelerate as the lawsuit advances through the system.
If the lawsuit goes to trial and the city loses, taxpayers could be “on the hook” to pay not only attorney fees for both sides, but also possible fines.
“The more they spend, the worse it’s going to look” he said, and “we as taxpayers are footing the bill for their errors,” Krause said.
Instead, Krause said he sees an alternative and hopes city officials will choose to release the requested records. He said, “A reasonable person would say, ‘this is a law we have to follow.'”