Mayor confronts citizen: ‘Why are you doing this to me?’
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston delivered an impassioned response to members of the Parkville Ethics Commission last week after the commission announced she was guilty of eight violations of Parkville laws governing the ethical behavior of city officials.
The commission announced Wednesday, March 2 that Johnston had violated the city’s code for elected officials in those eight instances, including a determination that her conduct was not “above reproach.”
The formal ethics complaint was filed by Parkville resident Elaine Kellerman this past fall, asking for the mayor’s removal from office.
The ethics commission investigated the matter and made a recommendation to the Parkville Board of Aldermen that the board issue a “strongly written reprimand” as a consequence of the mayor’s violations. The commission also stated that Johnston should have been suspended from her position of mayor if not for her term expiring in a few weeks.
Although the commission investigated and issued an opinion, it has no authority to act. Only the board of alderman has that authority and can use the commission’s recommendation as a guide.
In most violations, commissioners noted “a pattern of behavior in which the mayor’s human emotion resulted in behaviors not above reproach as the elected leader of this city,” according to the group’s written report. Commissioners stated that “above reproach,” a term used in the city code of ethics, “is a very high bar.”
The written draft of the commission’s findings included other strong language: “All of the items identified as violations were avoidable,” it read.
The commissioners decided not to issue an opinion on the allegation that Johnston had destroyed evidence during the Maki v Parkville lawsuit, leaving it to the Platte County Sheriff’s office to resolve that matter.
Kellerman’s letter to the ethics commission stated Johnston was guilty of “a lengthy and voluminous pattern of unethical behavior that suggests public corruption and undermines the confidence in fair government processes.”
After commissioners issued their opinions on all charges, Johnston took to the microphone to address the commission and asked Attorney Joe Vanover, who presided over the meetings on behalf of the commission, if she would be offered a chance to appeal the commission’s decisions.
“I think there’s some information that wasn’t really understood,” Johnston claimed.
Vanover told Johnston she could file a written response, to be forwarded to the Parkville Board of Aldermen and considered in their decision of what action, if any, they will take.
The commission finalized its decisions by voting in favor of a written document created to summarize the violations during a Monday, March 7 meeting. Johnston has three days to respond to the report.
The mayor apologized for her behavior that led to violations. Her voice broke with emotion as she addressed the commission. “You said you were going to consider everything in totality,” she said to the commissioners following their formal votes on each count of the complaints. “I’ve worked my butt off for this city for the last 14 years. I’ve worked nights, weekends, holidays, and I’ve been a very good mayor,” she said. “The last 3 ½ years have been so stressful and so awful and the attacks personal,” she said.
On her way out of the council chambers at City Hall last week, Johnston confronted Kellerman, who also was in the audience with, “Why are you doing this to me?” Kellerman said during a Monday afternoon telephone interview.
Kellerman said she replied, “‘I have no comment for you, mayor.'”
Kellerman said she was surprised that Johnston had addressed her directly, especially while the commission proceedings were ongoing. The two had waited in the council chambers as commissioners met in closed session prior to their votes on violations. Johnston did not respond to an email from a Landmark reporter asking for reaction to the commission’s ruling.
The five-member ethics commission, chaired by Brian Dehner, also included residents Gil Scott, Michael Pearl, Jerry Felker and Abby LacKamp.
Commissioners approved a written report of their findings during an afternoon video meeting Monday, March 7. Their findings first will be sent to Johnston and Kellerman and are to be delivered to the Parkville Board of Aldermen by Thursday, March 10, Vanover told the commission.
During the final meeting of the commission, LacKamp praised them as “the promptest group I’ve ever dealt with.”
Several commissioners said during voting they struggled with allegations the mayor had violated code by tampering with public records, including destruction of evidence. In addition to the public records lawsuit brought by Maki, the city was being investigated by the Missouri Attorney General’s office, who also asked officials to retain documents. Johnston said, during earlier testimony, that her deletion of the account was simply a matter of “cleaning up files.”
“I was merely cleaning up files and not even thinking about that it might look bad,” Johnston testified to the ethics commission in February.
Commissioners eventually decided they did not have sufficient information to include the deleted information in its list of violations. Instead, they deferred to the Platte County Sheriff’s Department in its criminal investigation of the deleted information. The department announced a few months ago that it is investigating Johnston and previous city administrator Joe Parente but sheriff’s officials to this point have offered no other information, citing their ongoing work.
Scott, the commissioner, said it was an important distinction that the items Johnston deleted were more than just a few random emails, but were an entire email account. Scott said deleting an account is not a quick process and takes six steps. He also said the timing of the deletions, within 24 hours of the mayor receiving notice that all email records were being subpoenaed, also was important.
Johnston tried to intervene during discussion of the deleted account, but Vanover told her there was to be no comments from the audience during commission discussion and voting.
Commissioners voted Johnston violated the city’s code of conduct for the following:
“Concealing and accepting illegal campaign contributions in her recent bids for mayoral reelection (the Missouri Ethics Commission also found Johnston in violation and, as a result, issued fines)
“Using her public office to attempt to coerce private market participants to censor the media, specifically, attempting to coerce Park University officials to stop advertising in and sending news releases to The Landmark Newspaper, which had published articles critical of the mayor and the current administration.
“Calling records requests submitted under the state’s Sunshine Law ‘harassment.’ In response, the board of aldermen released a statement stating they did not consider such records requests ‘harassment.’ In addition, this is a condition agreed to in the civil lawsuit with Maki.
*Attempting to convince members of a local Rotary Club to cease relationship with The Landmark Newspaper (again, because the newspaper published articles critical of the mayor)
*Attempting to convince city employees to stop sending press releases and legal notices to The Landmark and stopping the city’s complimentary subscription to the newspaper
*Driving under the influence, for which the mayor was charged and convicted.
*Instructing city employees to keep it confidential that she was attempting to have a landlord yank the lease of what she viewed as an undesirable Parkville business. (The business was never forced out.)
*Threatening Parkville resident Weston Coble, who was critical of her, with investigation by a state regulatory agency
Johnston did not reply to an email by a Landmark reporter, asking for her reaction to the commission’s findings.
Johnston is not running for re-election. A new mayor will be chosen by voters at the April 5 municipal election in Parkville.
Kellerman, reached by telephone Monday, declined to comment on the commission’s findings but did state, “At this point, all we have is a recommendation.”
Kellerman said she will comment after the board of aldermen review the findings and act on the commission’s recommendations. Kellerman also declined to speculate as to the board of aldermen’s actions based on the commission’s findings.
“My hope is that they follow the recommendation,” she said. “The citizens of Parkville expect that.”