Legal action is possible
he Parkville area resident who recently won the largest Sunshine Lawsuit settlement in the history of the state is using the same law to request information from the Parkville Economic Development Council.
The council is refusing to comply with Jason Maki’s request. Council attorneys have stated the EDC is not obligated by law to release the records because the group is not a government entity. Maki has issued a warning about civil and criminal liabilities to the council and its members if records are not provided.
“I will seek enforcement of my requests through the courts,” Maki said in a letter to a council attorney.
Maki contents that the Parkville EDC operates as an arm of the city and is funded by tax dollars and therefore is required to cooperate with the public records request. He gave the council a 21-day deadline–until Monday, Oct. 25–to produce the documents.
Maki is requesting electronic records or communications between the council and Mayor Nan Johnston, City Administrator Joe Parente, Aldermen Brian Whitley and Dave Rittman dated from July 2021 to the present.
He also is requesting communications containing the keywords “code” and “project” in the message subject lines, also from July 2021 to present. Maki has recently discovered that city officials have started using code words for projects in an effort to conceal subject matters in such communications.
“The information that I request will be used to inform the public’s understanding of the PEDC’s operations and activities,” he wrote in a letter to the council’s attorney. “These requests pivot around concerns that recent activities in Parkville have been orchestrated behind closed doors and out of the view of the public,” Maki’s stated.
Maki argues the EDC operates as an arm of the city because of the cross-over between leaders at city hall and the council’s executive committee. The council’s executive committee members are some of the same officials that lead city hall. For instance, Parente is one of two directors of the executive committee while other committee members are Mayor Nan Johnston and Aldermen Brian Whitley and Dave Rittman, the website states.
In addition, the council’s offices are located at City Hall, which provides access to taxpayer-funded equipment and amenities for which the council pays fees well below the market average.
In addition, Maki said the PEDC was created by city officials in 2010 and “activities focus on providing contracted services to its namesake public government body and ‘responsibilities essentially mirror’ the city’s goals as outlined in the Articles of Incorporation.”
“If their desire is to continue to operate secretly, they need to do so without taxpayer funding,” Maki said during the interview. “If you don’t want to operate in the sunlight, you can’t be funded by the taxpayer,” he said.
But Parkville city officials have argued that the EDC is not city-operated and therefore its records are not legally opened to the public under the Sunshine Law.
During a Sept. 7 Parkville Board of Aldermen meeting, Whitley stated, “Our position has been that the EDC is not a quasi-governmental body and to have (its office located) in City Hall could suggest to somebody that it is.”
Rittman said in an email that the office space at City Hall is now needed for “internal needs” and “several non-city board members” are searching for a new location for the council.
“However, our legal counsel had advised us that it is not unusual or inappropriate for cities to host EDC or similar type entities in city owned or leased buildings,” Rittman’s email stated.
Parente, who recently announced his retirement, did not answer an email from The Landmark by deadline.
Rittman said he also views the council as a completely separate body.
“Jason’s impression is not accurate” and the council is a “standalone,” charitable organization and is “managed by a number of our best and recognized community leaders consistent with EDC bylaws and policies, to include an annually elected chairman.”
Rittman added that an annually elected chair also indicates its identity separate from the city and the organization operates through memberships and that companies pay “significant annual dues to support the organization.”
Although a member of the executive committee, Rittman said his role is as a “liaison” between the city’s board of aldermen and the council and the executive committee manages “day-to-day needs between meetings, as is frequent practice in entities such as this, but on matters of substance, the full board votes.”
Board members are listed on the website with their company affiliations. Brian Mertz, owner of Parkville Development, the builder of the more than 350-acre Creekside, is listed as a voting board member.
The EDC’s website lists Ed Linnebur as the executive director of the council where Johnston states that “Ed has the experience to implement our mission for preserving our historic past while ensuring that our newer developments are responsible and well-planned.”
The council’s purpose is helping “to maintain and enhance the valued quality of life of Parkville by encouraging and coordinating responsible economic activity and community improvement,” according to the website. “We can help you build a new business or locate your organization to our thriving community.” The city is “known for our incredible education and business base” and makes Parkville “one of Kansas City’s most coveted communities,” the website states. “The Parkville EDC understands the needs of businesses and developers and how our city can help meet those needs.”