Vanover refers to situation as “an outrage”
Members of the Parkville Ethics Commission formed to investigate alleged ethics violations by Mayor Nan Johnston expressed disappointment during a recent meeting when they learned Parkville elected officials and key members of city staff are refusing to testify in person.
Alderman Dave Rittman, City Clerk Melissa McChesney, and City Administrator Joe Parente, were called as witnesses to provide testimony during a Feb. 2 hearing of the Parkville Ethics Commission. Rittman, McChesney and Parente refused to appear or testify in person when called and instead offered only to respond to questions in written affidavits at a later date.
Joe Vanover, attorney for the Parkville Ethics Commission, delivered the news to commissioners at a Wednesday, Feb. 2 meeting, stating that he was alerted to the development in a letter written by City Attorney Chris Williams, who said the witnesses were acting on instruction from the Parkville Board of Aldermen-the same body that asked the commission to convene to investigate the mayor’s actions. William’s letter also stated the other members of the board and city staff would not provide any in-person testimony.
The investigation was launched in response to an eight-page complaint written by resident Elaine Kellerman, who has called for the mayor’s removal from office based on alleged breaches of the city ethics code of conduct and criminal conduct.
In his letter to the commission, Williams stated that the board made the decision in a closed meeting prior to the regular board of aldermen meeting last week and their decision was based on the following reasons: an ongoing criminal investigation, launched by the Platte County Sheriff’s Department; a settlement agreement between the city and Jason Maki, who filed a civil suit surrounding what he alleged as the city’s illegal withholding of public documents under state law; the threat of additional lawsuits stemming from any testimony; and attorney-client privilege.
Williams stated in his letter to Vanover and the commission that although the board “wishes to be cooperative,” it was “in the (board’s) best interest to be cautious.”
The commission only meets to investigate ethics complaints and was last convened several years ago.
The position of mayor will be on the ballot at the April 2022 city election. Johnston did not file for re-election.
Commissioner Abby LacKamp said during the meeting that she’s disappointed in the board of aldermen’s decision not to let the witnesses testify in person. “I don’t really think this is acceptable,” she said.
Sheryl Biermann, a resident who watched the meeting online, said the city’s unwillingness to allow testimony sends a clear message to Parkville residents: “What are they trying to hide?” she asked during a telephone interview.
In addition, Biermann said the board’s lack of cooperation with a commission appointed by the board “makes our community look bad.” She blames the board for not acting after Johnston was arrested for DUI a couple of years ago, which Kellerman asserted is a clear breach of the city’s ethics code. “The board of aldermen did not do their job,” Biermann said of their inaction, adding that the mayor should have offered to resign.
The board of aldermen hired Vanover to serve as the attorney for the ethics commission after Williams advised them of the need for outside counsel, stating it would be a conflict of interest for him to serve in that role.
The commission is charged with investigating, then making a recommendation to the board of aldermen, who are free to act or not based on commission findings.
Vanover said the letter from Williams “was not intended to foreclose in-person testimony,” leaving open the possibility aldermen could change their minds.
Although commissioners ultimately decided to continue with the process of interviewing witnesses in writing, they were concerned about the lengthier process of submitting questions and waiting for written answers.
When reached by phone, Vanover said the commission plans to meet as scheduled at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10 at City Hall. He said he hopes the event will be live-streamed, as well, but has not yet received notification if that will happen.
Vanover said his earlier reticence to contact the mayor in person was due to his belief that she had separate legal representation in this matter and attorney-client decorum would not allow him to make contact. But he was surprised to learn she does not have legal representation and will therefore proceed.”We’ll see what she has to say,” he said.
When reached by telephone for comment, Vanover declined to offer his opinion as to whether he’s disappointed in the board’s decision not to allow in-person testimony. But, in a meeting several days prior to news of the affidavit form of testimony, commissioners discussed the possibility that city officials would refuse to cooperate with the ethics commission. Vanover said it would be a “terrible outcome and a terrible decision for them to make.” He said, “if they decide to stonewall, that would be an outrage.”