Plans to hear it while serving as a senior judge
uring a recent hearing in a case in which a Parkville area resident is suing the city for withholding requested public documents, the presiding county court judge indicated he plans to continue hearing arguments in the case after his upcoming retirement.
Platte County Judge James Van Amburg said during a hearing Friday in Jason Maki vs. City of Parkville that he hopes to see the case through to the end despite his plans to retire effective at the end of the month. After his retirement, he will assume senior judge status.
“My replacement hasn’t been named yet,” the judge said from the bench near the close of a hearing on Friday.
Both sides–the plaintiff Maki and the defendant’s attorney in court on Friday–said they hoped Van Amburg would be the judge to continue to hear the case.
Friday’s hearing came after recent filings in the case in which Maki asked the judge to find city officials in contempt of court for “not acting in good faith by their failure to produce” during pre-trial information-seeking. Paul Gordon of the city’s law firm of Baty Otto Coronado argued finding officials in contempt is inappropriate and too extreme.
In response, attorneys for the city recently asked the judge to impose a “gag order” on Maki to prevent him from speaking to the press or social media sites during the trial. Gag orders are common during criminal proceedings, not civil lawsuits. (See related Landmark article about this topic.)
During the Friday hearing, Van Amburg said he plans to rule soon on several motions in the case, in which Maki claims city officials are illegally withholding documents that should be forthcoming under the Sunshine Law, which is intended to guarantee government transparency for citizens.
When Van Amburg mentioned, during the hearing, the possibility of setting a summer trial date, Maki, said: “We are almost a year into this and I am still waiting for the city to respond to discovery request made last March,” referring to an early phase of a trial in which both sides seek basic information. Maki has said city leaders not only have withheld documents he requested under Sunshine, but also have not supplied information during the discovery phase of the lawsuit and has filed court motions intended to force the city to produce such information.
Van Amburg said he might review the case in late January or early February to set a trial date. He acknowledged he has yet not issued judgment in a few issues of the case which he has heard during the past several months.
“I understand I’m a couple of orders behind and will try to act on those promptly,” he said, referring to recent hearings in which he took issues “under advisement.”
At a hearing in November, Maki told the court that the city is stalling in attempts to avoid producing correspondence they do not want made public.
During the most recent hearing regarding the city official’s alleged attempts to disobey a court subpoena, Gordon said city officials “complied with the subpoenas and produced everything they had.” Maki disputed Gordon’s claims and produced numerous examples to prove otherwise and asked the court to hold the city’s officials in contempt.
Gordon responded, “You can’t hold them in contempt for something they don’t have,” he said, implying the documents may no longer exist.
Maki went on to state that the city officials were obligated to retain correspondences for use in possible future litigation starting when they first became aware of the Missouri Attorney General’s intent to investigate the city in January 2019.
But Gordon took exception. “There’s no law that these are all to be preserved,” he said.
Maki, a pro se litigant without any formal legal training, cited previous case law demonstrating that the city’s officials did have a “duty to preserve” and that their actions may open the door into questions regarding destruction of evidence.
Maki also provided examples of city officials’ production of documents when he said several of them had produced the same document with the exact same formatting, type face, spacing, etc., even though they all used different computing devices and printers. In other words, he believes officials simply photocopied a single same document and handed it over as if it were from their computers versus actually searching their own emails.
Gordon accused Maki of “ulterior motives,” stating that Maki “files a motion knowing the media will pick it up.”
Gordon claimed Maki has animosity toward city officials and mentioned a Facebook page operated by citizens who object to the way the city is managed. He mentioned “Citizens for a Better Parkville” a Political Action Committee (PAC) whose members post messages that sometimes show public officials in a negative light.
“He (Maki) is not looking for sanctions,” he said. “He’s looking for headlines.”
Gordon asked Van Amburg to impose sanctions (fines) on Maki to cover the city attorneys’ fees in responding to this most recent motion in addition to the proposed “gag order.”
“These are part-time politicians, with their own lives,” he said, adding that he objects to Maki’s request that the judge hold city officials in contempt of court for not producing the documents.