Attorney pens letter to Parkville ethics panel
An attorney who specializes in Missouri’s open records law this week wrote a letter of support for a Parkville area resident who sued city officials for unfulfilled and mismanaged Sunshine requests.
In his letter to the Parkville Ethics Commission, Elad Gross stated the city violated the state law when it charged Jason Maki, who requested documents under the law, for review time. The city charged him for review time spent by staffers determining whether a record was open or closed.
Gross, a St. Louis attorney, won a judgment prompting a Supreme Court decision that Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s office violated the state’s Sunshine Law for, like Parkville, charging for review time.
In his letter, Gross states that he is “in support of his (Jason Maki’s) interpretation of the Sunshine Law” in which Maki stated city officials violated the law when it charged him for the time city officials spent reviewing records that had been requested.
Maki never received some records despite being forced to pay illegal fees, he told a Platte County judge who heard the case in civil court.
The city and Maki eventually settled the case for $195,000. Sunshine experts have said they believe it is the largest Sunshine settlement in state history.
Gross’s letter to the commission continues: “I met Jason Maki after the Gross v. Parson decision,” his letter states. “Mr. Maki has unique experience with the Sunshine Law, having successfully litigated his own landmark Sunshine Law case.”
Gross continues: “He (Maki) also has substantial technical expertise in document analysis and identifying Sunshine Law,” said Gross, who defines himself as a civil rights attorney with a focus on federal and state constitutional law.
Maki’s professional background is in information technology.
Gross also pointed out that Parkville City Administrator Joe Parente, a non-attorney, may have violated the state law on the prohibition of engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. According to Gross, a non-attorney is not be permitted to make the legal determination about whether a record is “open” or “closed.” The City of Parkville could be liable for systematically having a non-attorney undertake this type of legal work in an attempt to collect fees on citizens who request public records.
The Platte County Sheriff’s Department announced a few months ago it is conducting a criminal investigation into Mayor Nan Johnston and City Administrator Joe Parente and whether the two destroyed public documents. In the sheriff’s incident report, there is also a mention of an investigation into potential perjury. Both Parente and Johnston have denied the allegations.
When asked by commissioners about deleting the files on a private email server, Johnston recently told the ethics commission she deleted the emails while she was “merely cleaning up files and not even thinking about that it might look bad.”
In addition, Johnston told commissioners she was not aware that some of the records Maki requested had not been released.
Gross’s letter states that it is unlawful for government entities to charge fees for “determining whether a record is open or closed.”
In the Parson case, Missouri’s highest court held that governments “may charge for staff time that is required to provide access to public records maintained on computer facilities” or other means, including some larger paper copies.
“Because the statute does not specifically authorize the government to charge for review time, the court held that such charges are impermissible,” his letter states.
Governments have an obligation to separate open and closed records “regardless of whether a public records request is made” and should have made such distinctions before any request is made, Gross points out.
Gross ends his letter to the ethics commission by stating he’s ” happy to discuss these issues with you at your convenience.”