Debate over City of Parkville records continues in court
n attorney representing the city of Parkville in a civil suit told a judge in the case Monday that he would provide certain requested communications between city officials “if that information is there to be provided.”
The disclaimer occurred during a hearing Monday in a case in which Parkville area resident Jason Maki, who is suing the city for allegedly improperly withholding documents he requested under the state’s Sunshine Law, which is aimed at government transparency.
Among other items, Maki has requested the communications between city officials regarding his open records requests, including those present in their private email accounts. The City of Parkville has previously admitted that city officials use their private emails to communicate about public business.
During a late December hearing regarding the city official’s alleged attempts to disobey a court subpoena, Paul Gordon, one of the five attorneys employed by the city, stated that the mayor and alderman had “complied with the subpoenas and produced everything they had.”
Maki disputed Gordon’s claims and produced numerous examples to show 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,” implying the communications may have been destroyed.
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.
MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL HAD WARNED CITY NOT TO DESTROY POTENTIAL EVIDENCE
Maki told Platte County Judge James Van Amburg during Monday’s hearing that he had become of aware that the Missouri Attorney General’s office had explicitly instructed city officials to refrain from destroying documents or communications regarding Maki’s sunshine requests that could be important during a related attorney general investigation.
In addition, Maki indicated that he had also served the city with a preservation demand which informed the city officials to retain documents and communications for possible use during any future litigation.
At a 2019 Parkville Board of Alderman meeting, City Attorney Chris Williams told board members about the attorney general’s letter, which the city had just received. He said the letter stated city officials should not destroy any documents or communications related to Maki’s Sunshine requests.
Further, Williams said he replied to the attorney general’s office and confirmed that any upcoming destruction of records would not include any of the Sunshine Law documents.
Alderman Brian Whitley suggested either retaining the pertinent records or sending the attorney general’s office a list of which documents would be destroyed in order to get prior approval. But, Alderman Dave Rittman said he favored retaining the documents and Alderman Marc Sportsman said he agreed. Sportsman claimed city staff was under “constant harassment” and “we know exactly how it’s going to be spun by those who are trying to spin it in their way as well as the local newspaper.”
Sportsman continued, “And if we have to go out and spend more money to rent more space for these records, that’s probably what we’ll have to do. The taxpayers, once again, will take the brunt of the harassment.”
The board voted unanimously to retain any records applicable to the Sunshine requests. Despite Maki’s numerous requests, the city has failed to make some documents available, a practice that has continued during the lawsuit.
THE MISSING COMMUNICATIONS MAY BE POTENTIAL EVIDENCE
Maki has made several attempts to retrieve the communications on officials’ private email servers. He earlier served each official with a written subpoena to produce and a “motion to compel” in response to the their failure to produce the documents. When the communications were not produced, he filed a motion asking the judge to find the mayor and aldermen in contempt of court for non-compliance.
Jacob Bielenberg, an attorney representing the city who spoke at the Monday court hearing, said the city already has provided all documents that exist. In a recent court filing, the attorneys for the mayor and aldermen also stated to the court, “plaintiff’s bold assertion is apparently based on the fact he possesses written communications that were not produced. However, this argument is based on an assumption that each of the city officials kept every communication (including email and text) from their private accounts.”
In the December hearing, Maki provided over 10 examples of communications from the mayor and aldermen that should have been produced, but were not. Maki questioned what other records have been withheld or destroyed. The destruction of these communications, while under an apparent duty to preserve them, has become part of the basis for Maki’s request to hold Parkville’s mayor and aldermen in contempt.
The judge has not yet ruled in this matter.
Van Amburg officially has retired his post as a Platte County Circuit Court judge but agreed to hear the remainder of the case following his retirement while serving in senior judge status.
Van Amburg said the next hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 8. He stated that hearing will be one in a long string of hearings to deal with issues in the case. The judge said, “We’ll just keep setting hearings until we get through them.”