At a meeting Tuesday night, the Parkville Board of Aldermen approved agreements with two additional law firms.
The Kansas City firm of Baty Otto Coronado, who represented the city in a recent civil suit over the alleged withholding of public documents, is one of the additions while the other is Vanover Law located in Platte County and led by Joe Vanover, a former assistant prosecutor who is now a county commissioner.
This action would give the city four law firms under agreement. Chris Williams of the law firm of Williams and Campo serves as city attorney. Mark M. Ferguson, attorney at law, was engaged in a special legal counsel agreement after the beginning of a still ongoing criminal investigation into City Hall earlier this year. And now Vanover Law Firm to represent the city ethics commission, and Baty Otto Coronado for unspecified legal needs.
One agenda item describes the need for Baty Otto Coronado’s services as “special legal counsel to assist in matters related to the city’s interests, and such other matters as may be directed by the city from time to time,” otherwise known as hiring a legal team on retainer.
The firm defended city officials in a civil suit in which Jason Maki won a $195,000 settlement in a case in which he accused officials of withholding information he requested under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which is designed to foster government transparency. Experts in Missouri’s Sunshine Law have said they believe the settlement is the largest in Missouri’s history.
It is not specifically spelled out in the agreement what might be prompting the agreement with Baty Otto Coronado. In addition to the recent settlement in the notable Sunshine lawsuit, it is known that the city is under investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s office over a new Sunshine Law complaint, and it is known that the Platte County Sheriff’s Department is conducting a criminal investigation over alleged matters at the city, including the alleged destruction of public records that had been subpoenaed in the Jason Maki civil suit vs. the city.
Vanover’s services are being sought as legal representative for the city’s ethics commission, after City Attorney Chris Williams advised members of the Parkville Ethics Commission that they should ask aldermen to approve the hiring of legal counsel for the ethics commission as the commission investigates allegations of unethical behavior by Mayor Nan Johnston and calling for her removal from office.
Parkville resident Elaine Kellerman submitted an eight-page formal complaint in October, detailing the charges, which include the mayor’s conviction of driving under the influence and four instances in which Johnston allegedly used her public office to coerce private market participants. Kellerman’s complaint also accuses Johnston of conspiring to influence the media by using city resources in an attempt to restrict access to a local newspaper and to attempt to influence business owners not to do business with the publication.
Vanover worked more than a decade in the county prosecutor’s office and his website describes him as “an experienced problem-solver” who “has worked inside and outside of government” during his more than two-decade law career. His website describes his specialties as real estate, business, and estate planning.
The ethics complaint against the mayor has been turned over to the Parkville Ethics Commission, which will consider the charges and make a recommendation to the board of aldermen. The five-member commission is led by a member who is appointed by the mayor, and also includes one member from each of the city’s wards, appointed by the board of aldermen. The body only meets when it receives a complaint and the last time it convened was in 2008.
Ethics commissioners will make a recommendation to the board of aldermen, which is free to accept or deny the recommendation. However, the commission only has met once following receipt of the charges. Another meeting will not be held until the board of aldermen names two commissioners following the resignation of two existing members. Ethics commission chairman Bryan Dehner did not respond by deadline to a telephone voice message left by The Landmark, asking about the status of the selection and a date for a subsequent meeting.
Johnston recently submitted a 10-page rebuttal to Kellerman’s accusations in which she denied the charges launched by Kellerman. As part of her rebuttal, she responded to complaints reiterating investigations by the Missouri Ethics Commission into her acceptance of illegal campaign contributions and failure to report some contributions. In one case, Johnston stated that the commission could have fined her up to $5,000, but only charged her $100 for a “technical violation” after an attorney she hired to review her campaign finance documents “did not include their own fees” in her expense report. Johnston claims the lower fee demonstrates that “the MEC understood my lack of culpability.”
Copies of Kellerman’s complaint and Johnston’s rebuttal are available on The Landmark’s website at plattecountylandmark.com