Arguments in Sunshine case taking shape
Parkville area citizen, who is suing the city over its refusal to release open records under the state’s Sunshine Law, has filed a motion requesting the release of communications by city officials using their private servers.
Jason Maki, head of a citizens’ group that has been vocal about objections to the way the city is managed, filed a civil suit Feb. 27 in Platte County Circuit Court accusing the City of Parkville of eight Sunshine Law violations.
In the latest motion, a court filing by Maki asks the city to produce private email and other such correspondence on private servers pertaining to Maki and Sunshine requests submitted between September of 2018 and the present.
The motion states the city has argued it cannot produce such private correspondence, conducted on the private email servers between Mayor Nan Johnston, City Administrator Joe Parente and the city’s eight-member board of aldermen.
The city’s response has included claims of invasion of privacy and a lack of access to such private emails and cell phone records. Under the suit, the city has five to 10 days to produce the documents or risk a hearing before a judge to decide the matter.
A Friday, Aug. 7 court date already has been set in response to the city’s alleged failure to produce other requested documents.
The motion filed by Maki states that “The city is now using evasive tactics to limit and forestall plantiff’s discovery efforts.”
The motion, filed Monday morning, states the request is “minimally burdensome” and unavailable from any other source. “. Mr. Maki has taken reasonable steps to avoid imposing undue burden,” the court document states.
The filing marks the latest in a string of requests by Maki in which the city released some documents as early as September 2018, but held others, claiming Maki owed more money.
However, Maki said at the time, that he already had paid several thousand dollars for documents. The Sunshine Law, designed to create transparency in government, only allows governmental bodies to charge minimal fees for copying records. However, the city said Maki’s requests were too numerous and burdensome for its small staff and forced the city to hire an information technology professional to comb city documents to respond to the requests. But the law states that a “custodian of record” in this case, the city clerk, is charged with releasing such documents to the public.
However, Maki’s attorneys at the time learned through Sunshine requested documents that City Administrator Joe Parente was sifting some documents before their release. Maki and his attorneys said they believed the efforts were the city’s attempt to decide which documents they wanted to release while withholding others. City officials have denied that claim.
When recently contacted about this civil suit, Parkville officials and Maki have said they are not at liberty to comment due to the ongoing nature of the lawsuit.
The latest motion alleges that the city “knowingly and purposefully” denied his requests because officials view him as “a political adversary and hoped to conceal from the public certain unfavorable (but open records) documents it knew Mr. Maki would rightfully share with the public.”
After the Missouri Attorney General contacted the city about launching an investigation into the city’s Sunshine requests, the city replied in an April, 2019 letter, stating “some of the elected officials have used their private e-mail addresses for correspondence related to City business. We are unaware of any prohibition on them doing so. We’re a small city and it’s not illegal for us to use our personal email, so I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal out of it,” Johnston is quoted as having stated in a November 2019 article in an area publication.
City officials told the attorney general in a letter in 2019, that they do “not have or retain any records related to cell phones.”
On numerous occasions, before the civil suit filing, city officials declined to respond to Maki’s requests for documents, each time failing to contact him by the timeframe requested, the motion states.
In the latest motion, Maki states that city officials claim the requests are overly broad.
“They are not. . . requests are limited in timeframe and subject matter to materials relevant to the claims and defenses in this suit,” the motion states.
The filing continues, explaining Maki’s speculation as to why the city is refusing to release the documents: the “materials will likely provide direct or circumstantial evidence that it withheld records from him despite knowing that it would violate the Sunshine Law because of their animosity toward him or fear that those records would impeach their credibility and performance as city officials in the public’s eye.”
The motion also asks the court to order the documents released within 10 days and if the city again denies the request, asks the court to hold the city “in contempt for failure to comply and to “impose such other sanctions, if any, as the court finds appropriate; and grant any other relief the court deems just and proper.”