Agenda changed late, attorney testifies at mayor’s hearing
The Parkville resident who called for an investigation into alleged inappropriate behavior by Mayor Nan Johnston continued last week to build a case for the mayor’s removal from office, even questioning the mayor’s actions surrounding events at a recent hearing investigating the original complaint’s claims.
(UPDATE: Wednesday night the Parkville Ethics Commission ruled Johnston guilty of eight violations of the city’s ethics code: https://plattecountylandmark.com/2022/03/03/parkville-mayor-guilty-of-ethics-violations/)
Elaine Kellerman, whose complaint launched the investigation by the Parkville Ethics Commission, said at a hearing last week that the agenda for a hearing should not have been changed at the last minute to allow testimony from an attorney who argued for Johnston’s position.
Attorney Joe Vanover, who runs meetings of the Parkville Ethics Commission on the city’s behalf, opened a hearing last week announcing that attorney Steven Coronado would be “testifying on her (Johnston’s) behalf.” The mayor notified Vanover of the agenda change just hours prior to the hearing. Vanover added that the change to the agenda was not made until about 5:30 p.m. due to “staffing issues,” at City Hall, meaning the amended agenda was available to the public about one hour prior to the hearing’s start at 6:30 p.m.
Vanover said he and committee chair Bryan Dehner agreed the testimony should be allowed. But some, including Kellerman, view the late agenda change as a violation of the very law for which the city settled out of court for $195,000 during a recent civil suit.
When Kellerman objected to the agenda change at last week’s meeting, Dehner told Kellerman, “Your objection is noted” and he stopped further debate on the issue when he reminded her that “you are here to answer our questions.”
The Sunshine Law states that agendas must be available to the public 24 hours in advance of a meeting but allows governmental bodies to waive the time requirement by posting after the 24 -hour period for “good cause.” Vanover said last-minute changes were allowed because they were deemed to be for good cause, meaning testimony defending the mayor, despite the mayor testified at a recent meeting on her own behalf.When contacted by phone following the meeting, Coronado said he was not testifying on Johnston’s behalf and was not paid for his time related to the hearing or Kellerman’s complaint.
“I was not there in a representative capacity,” he said, and added that he was there on behalf of city (officials). When a reporter questioning Coronado pointed out the hearing was held to investigate Johnston’s actions and not those of city officials, he then said he “was there as a witness” to events which occurred during hearings related to the lawsuit filed by Maki.
This week city clerk Melissa McChesney answered a Sunshine request from The Landmark by stating that Coronado was not charging for his time in front of the commission last week.
“Mr. Coronado indicated that he would not charge the city for his time associated with voluntarily attending and testifying before the ethics commission as the city’s attorney in the Maki Sunshine Law case,” McChesney said.
In another contradictory statement about Johnston’s defense in the commission’s investigation, Vanover stated in an earlier commission meeting that he had learned Johnston was not represented by an attorney during the commission’s investigation freeing him to contact Johnston directly to ask her questions prior to her testimony before the commission. However, a line-item expense in the commission’s packet for last week’s meeting shows a billing of $4,940 from Coronado’s law firm for a charge listed only as “litigation” followed by “Kellerman.” The charge is significant because it signals those taxpayers might, in fact, be paying for Coronado’s time representing the mayor in the commission’s investigation.
McChesney did not respond to a follow-up Sunshine request from a reporter asking if the charge was, in fact, for defending Johnston during the Kellerman-initiated commission investigation. During a telephone interview, Kellerman said she does not know what the line item actually represents, but would like to know. “Usually, lawyers do not appear anywhere without being paid for their time,” Kellerman said.
When reached by telephone, Maki said inconsistencies in the claims about whether Coronado was representing Johnston in his appearance before the ethics commission signal “more gamesmanship by the mayor and the city.” Maki added, “The truth does not change and the mayor’s story keeps changing because it’s not the truth,” he said.
Maki, who also testified at last week’s commission meeting, discussed with the commission the evidence that he said indicates the testimony of the Parkville aldermen, City Administrator Joe Parente, and City Clerk Melissa McChesney is false and that they likely perjured themselves.
Maki noted that their testimony was nearly identical word-for-word with the notable difference of Alderman Brian Whitley. Maki pointed out that Whitley took deliberate steps to modify his testimony and remove what he called the “false testimony” from his affidavit. Maki stated that Whitley is likely the only alderman who did not perjure himself and that he modified his testimony because he knows the claims by the other aldermen are untrue.
Maki also provided the commission two new examples of alleged destruction of evidence by the mayor.
In response, during his testimony Coronado attempted to convince the commission that because Maki issued the preservation notices, and not a judge, the mayor had no legal duty to preserve evidence and she was free to destroy it.
In an emailed letter to commissioners following his testimony, Maki said Johnston’s actions should be regarded as “destruction of potential evidence.” He quoted a 2017 precedent-setting court decision that city officials have a “duty to preserve materials-like emails-when someone has notice that he or she may have material relevant to litigation.”
Maki has also reminded the commission that Johnston should have preserved documents, in part, because of the Missouri Attorney General’s investigation which required the mayor to preserve correspondences.
Maki’s letter continued, “It is important to understand that a court order is not required to give rise to this duty to preserve.”
Maki concluded his letter by stating, “She had notice. She had a duty. She destroyed relevant materials. That is unethical – and it is illegal.”
The Parkville Ethics Commission is expected to conclude its investigation soon and will make a recommendation to the Parkville Board of Aldermen regarding Johnston’s requested removal as mayor.
The Platte County Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into alleged criminal activity by the mayor is ongoing.