(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series on the details and implications of a civil lawsuit settlement against the City of Parkville for Sunshine Law violations. The series will wrap up nearly three years of extensive reporting by Landmark reporter Debbie Coleman-Topi on the lawsuit and the events that led up to it.)
hen Jason Maki first requested public documents from the City of Parkville under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, he expected to pay a “nominal fee.” But nearly three years later, Maki is the one being paid–the $195,000 the city paid Maki to settle the suit is perhaps the largest Sunshine settlement ever in Missouri and–at least the largest out-of-court statewide settlement based on the law.
Although the settlement package is just shy of $200,000, Parkville taxpayers are already on the hook for more than $205,000 in city attorney fees related to the case, and that number will be even higher when all the smoke has cleared.
The Parkville area resident filed a civil suit against city officials in February 2020 alleging multiple violations of the state law designed to ensure transparency. The city has said it responded to 43 separate requests in 142 categories, which, at first, focused on matters pertaining to the Creekside development. But over time, the record requests expanded to include an array of topics and projects. City officials have claimed they offered more than 110,000 public records. But Maki has stated officials may have failed to release all of the documents requested.
In addition, Maki has said the city “overcharged” for some records, and that he paid a total of between $12,000 and $15,000 in fees for records amid repeated delays in producing records. In addition, Maki’s legal petition states that city officials established “pay walls” in which officials over-charged, then held records until Maki paid. He also has said he incurred costs for the city administrator’s time to cull records before they were released. All are violations of the state’s law.
In addition, the Missouri Supreme Court recently ruled in a case against Missouri Gov. Mike Parson that government bodies may not charge for reviewing records.
Mark Pedroli, a Sunshine expert, and advocate is quoted in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, as having said he could not remember a Sunshine settlement as high as Parkville’s before the case went to trial. He claimed that this case is “unprecedented” because Maki, as an “average person,” acted “pro se” as his own attorney, which makes the case and outcome “extraordinary.”
Maki added that “the individual citizen is not powerless against city hall.”
Both the city and Maki have said their decision to settle out of court was made to avoid additional taxpayer expenses.
“The city settled the lawsuit in the best interests of the citizens, both financially and operationally,” according to a press release issued by the city last week. “The taxpayers’ costs for continued litigation including the future legal expenses associated with depositions, a trial and potential appeals (even with a successful result for the city) are projected to exceed the settlement agreement payment,” according to the release.
The suit could have lasted several years and interfered with work by officials and staff, it continued.
Maki had similar concerns about continuing costs.
“It became apparent to me,” he said during an interview on Saturday, that officials were prepared “to go on as long as they can to wear this down.” He said he reasoned, “There has to be a better way to settle this.”
Maki maintains the city broke the Sunshine Law and he established such in court proceedings and “the excessive dollar amount of the settlement speaks to that.”
In civil court hearings, Platte County Judge James Van Amburg seemed to tire of what Maki claimed were repeated use of “stalling tactics” by the city, prompting the judge, more than once, to order attorneys, with the firm of Baty, Otto and Coronodo, who represented the city, to “give Mr. Maki the information.”
The legal team of five said they would attempt to fulfill the judge’s order. But Maki said that he “has no way of knowing what he doesn’t know” in terms of how many records he may not have received.
Under conditions of the settlement agreement, the city required Maki may not ask for previously requested records himself or advise others about how to request records.
Mayor Nan Johnston has stated that use of Sunshine is “shameful” and she and Alderman Marc Sportsman have characterized Maki’s use of the law as “harassment.”
Johnston has sometimes publicly berated citizens who have spoken out against the Creekside development in public meetings. In addition, she has directed profanity toward Parkville residents in emailed responses to inquiries made of city officials.
Parkville resident and business owner Tom Hutsler told The Landmark that he considers statements by the mayor–and her actions in which she was arrested for driving under the influence–a disgrace. He said, “I think the mayor should resign,” he said. “She’s a bully and disrespectful.”
He added, “She’s been disrespecting Parkville for way too long and would do everybody a favor if she’d just step down.”
In addition, Hutsler said he considers the settlement fee and other costs incurred by taxpayers such as himself “shameful” and “a waste of good money.” He said the city’s money could have been used in a number of productive ways.
“That money could have been used to pave a lot of sidewalks on Bell Road,” he said, adding that the roadway “is a dangerous situation.”
Hutsler said he’s appalled by the city’s press release announcing the settlement agreement in which they state they decided to settle for economic reasons.
“What makes good economic sense is to stop wasting taxpayer money,” he said. “This entire debacle was entirely avoidable.”
Hutsler added that the city’s press release demonstrates that city officials “didn’t learn anything. There’s no remorse and no apology,” he said.
Parkville Kenneth Wilson, who lost to Johnston in his bid for mayor last time she was re-elected, said he believes the settlement and other fees are too much for a small town such as Parkville. He said while the payout is “disappointing,” elected officials have a tough task when it comes to pleasing the public.
“I’m not naive to the fact that there’s going to be some pushback,” he said. “But, even if it’s damaging, without a doubt, just release the records.”
Wilson, who said he has no plans to run for mayor again, said he believes not enough of Parkville’s voters cast ballots and perhaps the lawsuit’s outcome could open eyes to the need to vote. He said because Parkville is “cliquish,” it could be the cause of low voter turnout and apathy.
“Bringing light to the situation (through the lawsuit) at least might make people aware to be more vigilant and ask more questions,” he said.
Maki said he hopes the outcome of the settlement gives other municipalities pause.
“This law sends a message to all government bodies because they are aware that a pro se litigant held a city accountable,” he said. “I hope they all are determining how not to be Parkville.”
In other words, he hopes the outcome of his suit will cause government officials across the state to ask, “Is it worth it to play games with the Sunshine Law?”