The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

April 5, 2014

Carol Stark: Something's wrong when public becomes 'opponent'

JOPLIN, Mo. — Members of the Joplin City Council met Thursday night with their legal counsel to decide if it would appeal a decision by a circuit court judge ordering the full release of an investigator’s report and related transcripts and documents.

The judgment had come down Monday in The Joplin Globe’s lawsuit seeking records that had been held in secret by the city since a Feb. 4 closed door meeting which resulted in the firing of City Manager Mark Rohr.

The City Council, on Thursday, was trying to decide whether it should make the decision in an open session or claim the litigation exemption and go behind closed doors to hash out whether it would appeal.

One of the attorneys in the room told the council he could not be “candid” with them in open session and then looked pointedly at our reporter Debby Woodin, who was there to cover the council’s decision. After all, she worked for the “opponent.”

I wondered if he, as well as members of the council, had stopped to consider that the “opponent” in this case was not the Globe or Debby but rather the thousands and thousands of people who live in Joplin. They are the taxpayers who foot the salaries of city workers and who got stuck with an $80,000 plus bill for an investigation they had barely seen. They will also pay the bill of the outside counsel the city hired. So when we filed the lawsuit against the City of Joplin, it certainly wasn’t for ourselves but on behalf of the public as a whole.

The council, in a 6-3 decision, chose not to appeal on Thursday. And I applaud them for making the decision known immediately and then ordering the release of all the documents by the end of the day on Friday.

That’s why you can go to www.joplinglobe.com and read the full 62 pages of investigator Tom Loraine’s report about the ethics of two council members and a missing sticky note — the original three charges presented to Loraine. And there, you will find  transcripts of interviews taken by Loraine.

On Monday, we will add the documents that Loraine used when he made his recommendations to the council. What you read is exactly what was released by the city. The documents belong to the public — a judge ordered it so — and it is not our place to edit or release them selectively. That’s what we were fighting in the first place.

The real irony is that in trying to get documents released on behalf of the public, it ends up costing taxpayers.

It shouldn’t have to be that way.

Before we hired Joplin attorney Charles Buchanan to represent us in court, we spent a lot of time talking with Jean Maneke, an attorney for Missouri Press Association members. It was during those conversations that we had hoped to avoid the suit.

Maneke works with a lot of reporters and editors. But she also works very hard trying to interpret Missouri’s open-meetings and open-records laws for government bodies making efforts to interpret the Sunshine Law.

“Frequently, through informal discussions we are are able to resolve any confusion about the law,” Maneke told me.

There are plenty of online resources available, and the attorney general’s website has Sunshine Law interpretation.

But at some point, when a public body digs its heels in, then there’s the courtroom — the place of last resort.

Many states have created an Office of Public Counsel related to the Sunshine Law. The platform uses a mediator for the public and takes away the prohibitive cost of a lawsuit. Maneke believes it would be a good thing for Missouri.

I do too, if it would help keep more government meetings open and more public officials concerned about their responsibility to those they serve.

But I also think the law is very clear. Council members, school board members, county commissioners and other govening boards should consider who they work for and put information into the hands of those they serve. Open-meeting exemptions should be used sparingly and with the broadest of interpretation. And those who create meeting agendas should immediately stop listing what I call “placeholder” closed session notices at the bottom of the agenda.

 Ask your elected officials why they are shutting you out. If they see you as the “opponent,” maybe you need new representation.

Carol Stark is editor of The Joplin Globe. Address correspondence to her, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802 or email cstark@joplinglobe.com.

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