Sunshine Law experts comment on Parkville’s action in court case
he City of Parkville recently asked a Platte County judge to issue a “gag order” to silence a Parkville area resident who has filed suit against the city for withholding public documents. Two Missouri attorneys who specialize in Sunshine Law said silencing a citizen is counter to the purpose of the Sunshine Law, which is intended to safeguard government transparency and is a basic tenet of living in a democracy.
Area resident Jason Maki filed the suit against city officials in February, for withholding public documents he requested as a citizen. He complained to the court that the city has not even released basic information required as the two parties prepare for a court case in the matter.
Maki has been seeking not only communications between city officials, but also how the aldermen, mayor and city administrator have searched for documents he has requested.
Attorneys Mark Pedroli and Bernie Rhodes said such a sanction in a Sunshine case is unprecedented and called it not only inappropriate, but also unconstitutional and counter to the law’s intended purpose.
“You can’t prohibit a citizen from complaining about their government,” Rhodes said during a recent telephone interview and added, “It’s the essence of the Constitution,” and he added that it is the very definition of a democracy.
Rhodes said the order would quash Maki’s right to free speech and asked, “Who are these people? It is beyond ridiculous. I’m sure the city has a lot better uses for their money,” he added, referring to the approximately $86,000 of taxpayer money the city reported it has already used in fighting the open records lawsuit, which isn’t close to wrapping up.
Rhodes, a member of Lathrop GPM of Kansas City and a lifelong Sunshine Law advocate, called the request “a lot of money being spent to protect somebody’s (city officials’) interests.”
He questioned the judgment of anyone from the city who felt this was appropriate and said a gag order is “completely contrary to what any first-year law student learns in Constitutional Law” class.
During a recent hearing Maki told the judge that city officials have failed to obey subpoenas to produce documents, concealed communications in those documents, and in some cases may have only performed perfunctory searches of documents in their possession versus fully complying with the subpoenas served upon them.
Maki asked the court to order the city officials to comply with the subpoenas and hold them in contempt for allegedly attempting to hide documents.
Paul F. Gordon, one of the five attorneys hired by the city to defend itself, responded by stating that the city officials may no longer possess the documents Maki is requesting, which raised concerns of possible destruction of evidence by the city officials (see accompanying Landmark article.)
As previously reported in The Landmark, current Parkville City Administrator Joe Parente was embroiled in a destruction of evidence controversy in his previous position in Illinois, according to media accounts.
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston was found guilty by the Missouri Ethics Commission of concealing campaign donors and expenditures during her 2019 election campaign.
In response to Maki’s requests, and prior to the hearing, the City of Parkville attorneys filed a gag order request against Maki, which, if the judge imposes, would prevent him from speaking to the press about the case.
The proposed gag order also sought to prohibit Maki’s use of social media to communicate with people about the lawsuit.
Rhodes said the law distinguishes government officials at all levels, from national to state and local offices, as being separate from private citizens, who enjoy a constitutional right to privacy.
“These are elected officials,” he said. “If they don’t have a thick skin they never should have run for public office.”
Rhodes used recent media attention about Mayor Nan Johnston’s driving under the influence (DUI) arrest a few months ago as an example of how elected officials open themselves up to greater public scrutiny.
Numerous news outlets reported the mayor’s arrest and some local television news channels showed dash cam footage of the arrest. The footage showed the mayor’s telephone call, during the arrest, to Parkville Police Chief Kevin Chrisman.
“I’m sure she (Johnston) doesn’t want anyone to talk about her DUI arrest either,” said Rhodes, who has seen the newscasts.
Mark Pedroli, a St. Louis area attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law and operates the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, agreed that a gag order is unfounded.
“Obviously the City of Parkville has lost the plot,” he said in an emailed statement. “It’s beyond alarming that a government entity would ask a court to gag a resident in Sunshine litigation,” he wrote.
“The city may not enjoy the litigation, but to ask a court to restrict First Amendment rights of a resident, in a judge-tried case, is both senseless and disturbing. Frankly, this highly unusual request makes you wonder what are they hiding in the City of Parkville?”