Are taxpayers paying for mayor’s lawyer?
The Parkville resident who filed an ethics complaint with city officials asking for the mayor’s removal from office is questioning why taxpayers are paying the bill for an attorney who spoke on the mayor’s behalf.
Elaine Kellerman, who submitted a written complaint this past fall, alleged Mayor Nan Johnston violated the city’s code of conduct in numerous instances (which the commission has found her guilty of violations on eight counts). Now Kellerman is asking why a bill of $8,500 to pay Johnston’s attorney was an approved city expense.
Kellerman’s eight-page written complaint launched an investigation by the Parkville Ethics Commission against the mayor and a specially appointed commission found she violated city code in eight instances. Those violations include a DUI for which Johnston was charged and several cases of interfering with The Landmark Newspaper.
The commission has no authority to act, but makes a recommendation to the Parkville Board of Aldermen, who will choose whether to accept the commission’s recommendation. Commissioners recommended the city issue a “very strongly written reprimand” to the mayor.
However, if the mayor had longer to serve (her term ends in April when a new mayor will be elected), commissioners stated they would have recommended her suspension.
The commission’s recommendation 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.”
The board of aldermen was scheduled to meet Tuesday, March 15 after this edition of The Landmark had gone to press. An agenda item refers to the commission’s recommendation.
Kellerman said she has asked a city official for an explanation about the attorney’s bill, which showed up in a recent board of aldermen meeting packet and was approved by the board of aldermen to be paid by the city.
City Clerk Melissa McChesney responded to Kellerman’s email on behalf of Coronado: “The charges incurred by the city were for assistance provided to the city by the Baty Otto firm related to responding to your Sunshine Request and activity related to continuing advice and guidance given to the city regarding questions raised by the Ethics Commission directed generally to the city.”
But Kellerman said during a Monday afternoon telephone interview that the email is “a pretty vague statement that’s open to interpretation. It’s obvious the city is trying to protect themselves,” she said.
The Landmark called and emailed several aldermen who did not reply to questions by Monday’s deadline about why Coronado spoke on Johnston’s behalf when the ethics violations only involved the mayor and not the board or city staff.
When reached by telephone Sunday, ethics commissioner Abby LacKamp did not address why the city and therefore taxpayers were paying for Coronado’s expertise. “Attorneys charge for their time,” she said. ‘That’s what they do.” LacKamp then agreed to answer additional questions emailed by a reporter but did not reply by Monday’s deadline.
“I am confused by this.” Kellerman stated in an email to Parkville Finance Director Matthew Chapman, adding that the allegations that Johnston violated the city ethics code were filed against the mayor, not city officials.
“Why is the city using this firm (Kansas City law firm Baty Otto Coronado) to manage my complaint against the mayor?” Kellerman asked in an email to Chapman and forwarded to The Landmark. “If she required a lawyer, shouldn’t she be responsible for the cost?” Kellerman asked.
In addition, Kellerman noted that Joe Vanover, an attorney who guided the ethics commission’s investigations and deliberations on behalf of the city, said in an earlier ethics meeting that he was free to discuss the commission’s work with Johnston because she did not have an attorney to represent her in the proceedings. When a Landmark reporter contacted Vanover for a comment about his understanding of why an attorney suddenly appeared to testify, Vanover said in an email, ” I have no comment.”
In her email to Chapman, Kellerman referred to a $160 charge for the following: “Prepare communication to Joe Vanover regarding the general sunshine process.” Kellerman wrote in her email to Chapman, “Does the city not know how they handle sunshine requests? Do they need a lawyer to explain what they do?” She wrote, “Reading through the multiple charges on this billing statement makes my head spin.”
In an emailed Sunshine request to city staff following a Feb. 23 meeting in which Coronado attended the ethics commission meeting, The Landmark asked City Clerk Melissa McChesney, the city’s “custodian of record” who, therefore, is in charge of replying to Sunshine requests, if Coronado would charge for his time representing Johnston. McChesney replied that Coronado had told her there would be no charge. But, when asked for an explanation of the chain of events that led to charges after Coronado spoke to commissioners during the meeting, Coronado replied, “There was no miscommunication. I did not charge the city for attending the Ethics Commission meeting held on Feb. 23. You have the invoice you were questioning,” he said of McChesney’s emailed statement as a result of The Landmark’s Sunshine request. “The invoice indicates that work was done for the charges incurred. There is no ‘chain of events’ that need to be explained.”
Vanover told the commission during its Feb. 23 meeting that he learned of Coronado’s appearance about two hours prior to the meeting. By the time city staff posted the change to the agenda, it was an hour prior to the meeting, which he told commissioners they did not have to allow him to speak due to short notice. However, commissioners decided to allow for Coronado to speak. Maki had argued in his lawsuit that the city violated the law in responding to his Sunshine requests for information by either over-charging for or not providing information he requested.
“They (Coronado) did a lot of work,” Kellerman said during a Sunday telephone interview. “Why do a group of lawyers need to deal with this?” Kellerman asked of the charges billed by Coronado’s law firm. Coronado’s remarks to the commission addressed an email account that Johnston admitted she deleted because she did not think it was pertinent to the case. She said it was a private email account dealing with her bid for re-election as mayor. Commissioners decided not to issue an opinion on the email account deletion because the Platte County Sheriff’s Department announced several months ago they have launched a criminal investigation into the matter.
Maki had argued in his lawsuit that the city violated the law in responding to his Sunshine requests for information by either over-charging for or not providing information he requested. Maki and the city settled out of court for $195,000, but city legal representation said the settlement was not an admission of guilt. Maki told the judge information deleted by Johnston in the private email account violated orders to retain information prior to pending litigation. The city and its officials were under multiple orders to protect information from several sources: the Missouri Attorney General, who had announced an investigation into the city for possible Sunshine violations, Platte County Judge James Van Amburg, who heard pre-trial proceedings in the case, and Maki, who sent letters to city officials about retaining information for possible future litigation.
Maki emailed commissioners March 2, stating that members should disregard Coronado’s comments as “unreliable and biased” based on his work defending city officials in the lawsuit he filed against the city. His email stated, “Mr. Coronado clearly has a past and present financial incentive to advocate for the mayor and the city’s worldview on the mayor’s conduct and the Maki v Parkville litigation.”