Alleged Parkville violations now total 59
citizen who is suing the City of Parkville for violations of the state’s Sunshine Law says he has discovered additional alleged violations, with the total now at 59. With a potential fine of $5,000 each, the city faces a potential total assessment of $295,000 in the lawsuit.
The dozens of alleged violations in the Platte County civil suit fall under the law which is intended to safeguard government transparency. The lawsuit alleges city officials made “knowing and purposeful Sunshine violations” when responding to requests submitted by Parkville area resident Jason Maki.
Maki’s expanded lawsuit includes recently discovered additional alleged violations, expanding the scope to include impermissible fees, purposeful overcharging, not providing the requested public documents in a timely manner – or at all, and doctoring of some communications in an attempt to conceal recipients. The result was an additional 51 cases of alleged violations, added to his previous eight allegations.
Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in Sunshine cases and provides legal counsel for the Missouri Press Association, said the $5,000 per violation amount asked for in fines is dictated by state law per Sunshine violation.
“That figure is not just picked out of the air,” she said during a Monday telephone interview.
In Maki’s suit, he also is requesting reimbursement of “fees, costs and expenses” he has paid to the city to receive some Sunshine requests. The law allows governments to charge nominal fees for copying records. Maki has said he has paid the city about $13,000 for requested public documents and city officials have not refunded any of the fees he has paid that he deems excessive under the law or for documents the city eventually withheld.
The requests for information date from Sept. 7, 2018 to this past June 29 and began as Maki sought information about a controversial residential, light industrial and commercial development on more than 300 acres. Maki and other Parkville area residents attended a public hearing in September 2018, in which city officials announced plans during “public hearings,” which are required by law to inform citizenry of such government actions.
Some of those in attendance claimed city officials met behind closed doors to discuss the development with Brian Mertz, who is managing the project at Interstate 435 and Missouri 45, known as Creekside.
Although initial information requests centered on the development, Maki broadened the requests over time to include emails and other communications that he says demonstrate the manner in which city officials operate and discovered “serious concern that Parkville government was not operating in the sunlight,” according to a Sept. 10 court petition.
Officials are accused of “failing to make public records available within a reasonable time and without reasonable cause for delay.”
In some cases, Maki has waited months for public documents, while city officials sifted and culled documents to remove information that would paint city leaders in an unfavorable light, Maki’s petition states. The law does not permit government officials to sift and sort documents under the Sunshine Law. In some cases, city officials delayed responses to his Sunshine requests.
Maki says a recent example shows city officials only responded to a request filed by Maki on Feb. 20, 2019 over a year and half later. In this case, Maki’s request sought information about the $63 million in tax incentives the city was preparing to grant to developer Mertz and his associates.
“During the course of preparing supplemental responses to your first set of interrogatories that I believe (Parkville’s attorney) is filing today, we discovered that 184 records due to oversight did not get copied into the flash drive you picked up,” an email from City Clerk Melissa McChesney states. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” it concludes.
The “found” records were reported 19 months after Parkville aldermen approved $53.7 million in tax incentives for Mertz and associates through the reallocation of future funding for schools and public safety, an additional $10.5 million in tax incentives payable to Mertz and associates via property tax levies for Creekside area residents, and one percent increase in sales tax payable to Mertz and associates via a Community Improvement District (CID).
Maki’s request was also made prior to Mayor Nan Johnston’s bid for re-election and the elections of three members of the Parkville Board of Aldermen.
“These records should have been made available prior to the April 2, 2019 election-so that the public could be fully informed about the city’s planning and decision making,” Maki said in an email Monday to The Landmark.
In addition, city officials made “only altered versions available” in some instances. Maki says he was denied some information after City Administrator Joe Parente spent “more than 100 hours of his time screening documents to cull and suppress those that are or may be politically damaging to the city’s decision makers” the petition states.
City officials acted on his requests knowing he “would, consistent with the Sunshine Law’s purpose, permit the public, including Parkville voters, to inspect any public records he obtained,” according to Maki’s court filing.
In October 2018, Maki and several other Parkville citizens met with a Parkville alderman. The alderman, who is not named in the petition, allegedly instructed Maki not to make more Sunshine requests because city officials would view them “as adversarial and would react poorly.”
The alderman then allegedly attempted to bargain with Maki to prevent future requests, the petition states. Maki said he learned through a Sunshine document which the city fulfilled, that Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston “attempted to persuade a commercial property owner to ‘yank the lease’ of an existing business” because it was “undesirable.”
The request stated the impetus was to offer the lease to a different tenant with whom Johnston had a personal relationship.
In addition, Johnston told city staff and elected officials to avoid a local business group “because Mr. Maki had joined it.”
Based on these revelations, Maki submitted requests for communications concerning several business districts, including downtown, “Old Town” and “Parkville Commons.”
City staff responded they could not supply the information because they “did not retain lists of commercial property owners.”
Maki said in the petition that he later learned the city does maintain lists of commercial properties but failed to provide him access to the information.
In addition, city officials billed Maki for more than 200 hours of time “reviewing” records in response to some communications “which were stored on computer facilities-rather than simply identifying and copying them as permitted” by state law.