Resident: ‘If anybody believes this is done, they’re mistaken’
record-setting settlement in a Sunshine Law lawsuit in Platte County continued to be a bit contentious even after both the resident who filed the suit and the defendants, Parkville city officials, signed the settlement agreement.
In the civil case, Jason Maki, a Parkville area resident and non-attorney who represented himself in the case, alleged 59 violations of the state’s open records and meetings law, which was written to foster government transparency.
According to Maki the city’s press release announcing the settlement misstated the facts of the settlement and was misleading to the public. “The city’s press release takes advantage of and evades the spirit of a clause designed to protect Miss Chesney,” Maki said. “I was concerned McChesney (Melissa McChesney, Parkville’s city clerk) would become the ‘fall guy’ for the conduct and decision making of Parkville’s elected officials,” he said.
Maki also stated that he felt he needed to act to ensure that the city acknowledge that McChesney “did her job” as instructed as to avoid any risk of her losing her job as Parkville’s clerk and custodian of records. After all, Maki said, McChesney was simply following orders from her superiors at City Hall.
Maki said a clause, inserted into the settlement at his request, was meant to ensure that the city clerk not be held responsible for the city’s failure to release documents. City clerks are “custodians of record” in Sunshine requests, meaning they are tasked with responding to requests for information and releasing documents.
Maki said city officials attempted to twist the clause written into the settlement into somehow indicating that Maki stated that the city is at no fault in fulfilling his requests for information. Officials used his “well-intentioned” stipulation to make it appear that he had “absolved the city of any wrongdoing,” Maki said in a telephone interview, adding that the city’s interpretation was “factually inaccurate.”
In the city’s initial press release announcing the suit settlement, city officials stated that “Mr. Maki stated that the city’s custodian of records properly fulfilled its obligations and did not violate the Missouri Open Records Act.”
However, that’s not what the settlement actually says. The settlement reads: “WHEREAS, at Mr. Maki’s request, the city acknowledges that the custodian of records for the City of Parkville properly fulfilled her obligations and did not violate the Missouri Open Records Act.”
It is clear by reading the settlement that Maki’s intent was to require that “the city” acknowledge that McChesney properly fulfilled “her” obligations, and not “the city.”
Nowhere in the settlement does it state that “Mr. Maki stated,” or acknowledge, that the city or custodian of records properly fulfilled “its” obligations and did not violate the Missouri Open Records Act.
So that sentence in the city’s news release prompted Maki to write a letter of complaint to city officials and their legal representatives objecting to the claims.
In response the city updated its website stating, “Mr. Maki has expressed a concern about a certain statement in the press release issued by the City of Parkville.” The city included both its original, incorrect statement and also the correct language from the settlement. The city’s release concluded with, “The signed settlement agreement and release speaks for itself.”
City Administrator Joe Parente did not respond to voicemails or calls for comment from a Landmark reporter.
The settlement agreement also includes two stipulations imposed by the city, including that Maki will make no further records requests related to the topics of his initial requests and will not assist others in seeking those topics from the City of Parkville.
The agreement also states each party is responsible for paying their own legal fees.
Both parties have stated settling the case out of court was in the best interest of city taxpayers, who have the responsibility for paying the settlement and legal fees. At last reporting, city officials have said they have paid more than $200,000 for representation in the lawsuit, a figure that will increase as attorney fees continued to be assessed after that date.
Maki has said he had offered to settle for less than the final settlement amount of $195,000, however, that came with the requirement that the city officials would pass an ordinance prohibiting the use of private emails to conduct city business.
Parkville resident Elaine Kellerman said she believes city officials would have accepted the offer if they truly were interested in transparency. In addition, accepting the offer also would have saved money in legal fees.
“It doesn’t speak well of them,” Kellerman said.
In addition, Kellerman said she and other residents are wondering from which funds the money for the legal fees and settlement, which are expected to total nearly $500,000, will come.
“What is the city going to have to forgo (to pay the fees)?,” she asked.
But Kellerman said the settlement agreement may not signal the end of the controversy about the way the city is managed and hopes “a groundswell of dissatisfied folks” act.
“They (city officials) need to make a full accounting of their behavior,” she said, and added: “If anybody believes this is done, they’re mistaken.”