City had charged for review time
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on the details and implications of a civil lawsuit settlement between Jason Maki and the City of Parkville over alleged Sunshine Law violations)
he City of Parkville settled a two-plus year long lawsuit in a Platte County for allegedly withholding government documents requested via the Sunshine Law shortly after the Missouri Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the public on a similar issue.
The Supreme Court case of Gross v Parson was brought by Elad Gross, a former assistant attorney general against the office of Gov. Mike Parson.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gross stating that, among other things, governmental bodies may not charge for “review” time of records requested by the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
Jason Maki, who resides just outside the city limits of Parkville, brought a similar lawsuit against the City of Parkville in 2020. Maki had argued that some of the government documents he requested were being “held hostage” in lieu of thousands of dollars in payment. City officials, he argued, had misused a clause in the state law that allows governments to charge nominal fees for copying and transferring documents. The tactic of charging for review time has been increasingly used by government bodies at all levels to conceal information that the law deems should be open to the public.
Following the high court’s decision, Maki and the city settled out of court for $195,000, which is believed to be the largest Missouri Sunshine settlement. At minimum it stands as the largest out-of-court Sunshine Law settlement in Missouri history.
Sunshine expert, advocate and attorney Mark Pedroli said in a St. Louis Post Dispatch story that the settlement is the first time an “average person” acted “pro se” as his own attorney in a Sunshine case.
“It is extraordinary for a pro se plaintiff, an average person, to file a lawsuit and then take it down the road as he did for two years and to achieve the result he did,” Pedrioli said. “I think that’s unprecedented.”
During Platte County court hearings, Maki alleged that the city had committed at least 59 violations of the law, including unreasonable delays for information and denying requests for others.
Like in the case involved in the Supreme Court ruling, some of the information Maki requested also was sorted and held in lieu of hundreds and, at times, thousands of dollars in payments. Parkville officials claimed Maki owed them for hours of “review” time mostly by City Administrator Joe Parente, the city’s top paid, non-elected official.
Maki’s lawsuit held that the city may not charge him for “review” time and that the purpose of the city’s “review” time was to screen documents to cull and suppress those that are or may be politically damaging to the city’s elected officials.
City officials have said the time they spent reviewing information for Maki took them away from vital city business and, therefore, was burdensome. Mayor Nan Johnston and Parente have declared the requests “overly burdensome” with Johnston describing Maki’s use of the Sunshine Law as “shameful” and “harassment.”
The ruling by Missouri’s highest court and Maki’s settlement sends a clear message to governments about how they are to respond to records requests, according to Missouri Sunshine experts.
“Missourians owe a debt of gratitude” to St. Louis attorney Elad Gross, for his Supreme Court victory, according to an opinion piece in The St. Louis Post Dispatch. The Dispatch also describes Maki’s recent victory as “a celebration of government accountability. It’s a sign that, yes, one man can take on City Hall.”
Gross filed a Sunshine request for records relating to the administration of former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned under a cloud of controversy. While the state located the requested 13,659 records, the state held them in lieu of $3,618 payment. The documents were said to reveal the former Republican governor’s “dark money campaign financing.”
A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post Dispatch described Gross’s efforts and the ruling’s impact: “Gross is a lawyer who had the time and expertise to pursue this case with levels of dedication that regular Missourians would be unlikely to muster. And it was his persistence in righting a wrong-not so much the price tag but the principle-that resulted in a win for all others” who were deterred from seeing the information requested.
Gross was joined by other Missouri attorneys who specialize in the law, which was first adopted by the Missouri legislature in 1973. Bernie Rhodes, who has represented the Kansas City Star in Sunshine cases, filed a 35-page brief detailing how newspapers often face high payments when requesting documents to be used in reporting. “The Star’s ongoing litigation with Clay County is the poster child of attorney review time abuse,” the brief states.
The newspaper’s reporters had requested copies of bills received from outside “Sunshine Law counsel,” but the documents were only accessible after the office received a $4,200 payment.
Maki’s battle with Parkville began in 2018 when officials held a public hearing about a proposed development near Interstate 435 and Hwy. 45. Creekside is a residential, light industrial and retail development. A citizens’ group was formed and raised concerns that city officials had violated the state’s Sunshine Law and allegations included that staff and city officials purposely rushed the city’s legal process for reviewing and acting on construction proposals to limit scrutiny.
Members of the group claimed that various elected officials, including Mayor Nan Johnston, had detailed knowledge of Creekside and the developer’s intention to seek over $60 million in taxpayer-backed financing long before it appeared on the city’s planning and zoning board agenda. City officials have said they only had a “vague notion” of the plan in those early days and only decided to accept the proposal by developer Brian Mertz after the public was notified. However, the citizens’ group has accused officials and staff of intentionally structuring their meetings and discussions to avoid the transparency provided by the Sunshine Law. The Sunshine Law stipulates discussions and decisions regarding such proposals should occur in open session with ample opportunity for public input.
Maki has said although the battle he and others had with the city began with questions about the city’s handling of the proposed development, concern grew over time to encompass the city’s management of other issues. Controversies since 2018 have ranged from the placement of unwanted lighted baseball fields next to a residential and wildlife wetlands areas to ethics and campaign finance violations by Parkville’s mayor. While Maki withdrew from other controversies to concentrate on the lawsuit, other Parkville residents have continued their efforts to raise the public’s awareness of important issues impacting the Parkville area.
Kansas City native and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter James V. Grimaldi, who writes for the Washington Post, tweeted about the Parkville lawsuit settlement agreement, which has been reported in several newspapers nationwide. Grimaldi, alluding to the more than $400,000 Parkville taxpayers will pay in settlement and attorney fees, wrote: “Democracy might die in darkness, but darkness can be costly.”