By Roger McKinney
BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. —
Six members of the Baxter Springs City Council are being investigated for alleged open-meetings violations by the Kansas attorney general’s office.
The six are those who have opposed Mayor Jenifer Bingham’s actions since April, when they rejected her appointments to replace City Clerk Donna Wixon and police Chief David Edmondson. Bingham placed Wixon on paid leave for a time.
Council members Mike Kaufmann, Ed McAfee, Gary Allen, Robert St. Clair, Ron Steele and Ron Costlow have responded to interrogatories — sworn questionnaires, submitted by assistant Kansas Attorney General Lisa Mendoza.
Three of them, McAfee, Allen and Costlow, are on Tuesday’s ballots in their wards as the result of a recall effort. Recall organizers alleged in their petitions that the three violated the open-meetings law.
The interrogatories asked about meetings or interactive communications involving a majority of the council to discuss hiring attorney Kevin Cure to represent them. It also asked if there were any meetings at Kaufmann’s house with McAfee, Allen, St. Clair, Steele and Costlow present.
NO SUCH MEETING
The answer to both questions was: “No such meeting or interactive communication occurred.”
Cure prepared the responses, after talking with the council members individually, though Allen submitted his responses separately.
Cure, a former Baxter Springs city attorney, also wrote a letter to Mendoza, dated Oct. 16. He wrote that Kaufmann and St. Clair had independently contacted him before the April 24 City Council meeting, each expressing concern that Bingham was trying to steamroll the council following her unsuccessful effort to replace the city clerk and police chief. He met with each separately, with Wixon and Edmondson present at both meetings. He wrote that he also met with Costlow, just before the meeting began.
“None of these three council members discussed any actions to be taken between them,” Cure wrote. “Further, I did not provide the thoughts or information that I derived from any of these three council members to any of the other council members of this three-person group.”
Cure wrote that he prepared the measures presented at the April 24 council meeting, based on his meetings with the individual council members. He wrote that he didn’t consult with Allen, McAfee and Steele at all before the meeting.
“During the April 24, 2012, meeting, Mayor Bingham stated that she had a photograph of the six council members conducting an illegal meeting at the house of one of them,” Cure wrote. “This is a complete lie as no meeting occurred and therefore no photograph exists. I strongly suggest that your office demand the mayor to produce this photograph, as if it exists, it is evidence to support your investigation. However, it does not exist, and this is consistent with the mayor’s lack of credibility on the subject.”
He wrote that Bingham has insulted him and other council members at meetings.
“I have photos,” Bingham said by phone. “I have plenty of photos. We have evidence that these people are there.”
She said her attorney, the city attorney and the attorney general have the photos, and her attorney told her she didn’t have to supply them to Cure. He said she also has emails that would bring the open-meeting violations to light.
“I’m really tired of being slandered to the media,” Bingham said. “They get to be very casual with their words, and irresponsible. I try to keep quiet and don’t go running to the media with everything, but I’m tired of being slandered.”
QUICK DECISION SOUGHT
Cure asked for a speedy investigation, considering the recall election.
“I respectfully request that your investigation be concluded in time that your findings may be announced at least a week before the recall election is held,” Cure wrote on Oct. 16. That date passed on Tuesday. “There is certainly no truth to the allegations. These council members deserve to have their names cleared prior to this election.”
Cure said by phone to the Globe that he’s concerned that to some people investigation is automatically equated with guilt. Despite that, he said he and his clients are happy that the investigation is taking place, because they know the outcome.
“There’s not one concrete piece of evidence, period,” Cure said. “I think we’ve responded fully and truthfully. The parties making the allegations don’t have any proof.”
Kaufmann, who isn’t facing a recall vote, said he also hopes the investigation can be completed swiftly, for the sake of those facing the recall based on unfounded allegations. He said he is happy that the investigation is taking place.
“Hopefully we can get vindicated for this, and rightfully so,” Kaufmann said. “People have been going around with these rumors that we held illegal meetings. I’ve been accused of something I didn’t do.”
Recall organizer Cathy Bolek said she has provided the county attorney and the attorney general with evidence of open-meeting violations. She said she was confident that her allegations will be proved true.
“Why would the attorney general be willing to put this much effort into something that he didn’t have hard evidence to start with?” Bolek said.
Baxter Springs Mayor Jenifer Bingham said she doesn’t know if the attorney general’s investigation will agree with her, because she said politics are involved. “I am confident in what I state and what I know is true,” the mayor said. “I have a higher being to answer to.”