The Joplin Globe and its parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., on Monday filed a lawsuit seeking a court order for public disclosure of the full report of a Joplin City Council investigation that resulted in the firing of the city manager.
The Globe also is seeking release of all of the report’s exhibits as well as public access to the testimony of witnesses.
The lawsuit, filed in Jasper County Circuit Court, is based on the city’s refusal to disclose a portion of the report related to former City Manager Mark Rohr, who was fired after the report was discussed by the council. The suit names the city and Barbara Hogelin, the city clerk, because she is the official keeper of city records.
Given an opportunity to respond for this report, Assistant City Attorney Peter Edwards said he would not comment on pending litigation.
Tom Loraine, a special investigator hired by the City Council on Nov. 11, provided the report to the council on Feb. 4. The investigator was hired to look into conduct involving two councilmen, Bill Scearce and Mike Woolston, and how Scearce obtained a note that the city manager had said had been on his desk.
After the report was heard by the council in closed session, it voted 5-4 in open session to fire Rohr without cause.
City officials then declined to release the part of the report regarding Rohr, saying it is a personnel record that is closed under state law.
A Globe reporter asked city officials for the part of the report that was not publicly disclosed. An open-records request was filed on Feb. 6 asking for documents including a full copy of the report, its exhibits and access to the testimony of witnesses.
In a Feb. 14 response, Hogelin disclosed only the previously released press copy of the report, minus the pages about Rohr, and certain exhibits. “Other portions of the report or exhibits are a closed record pursuant to 610.021 (3) and (13) RSMo2013,” the city clerk wrote. Those numbers refer to sections in the state open-records law.
The Globe, in a petition for a writ directing the release of the documents, contends that the agreement between the city and Loraine states that Loraine was to issue written findings and conclusions of the issues investigated, “and this document shall be an open record made available under the Missouri Sunshine Laws.”
Globe Editor Carol Stark said of the agreement signed by Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean: “The contract was very specific that the document prepared by Loraine will be an open record. More than just a contractual agreement, we view it as a promise to the residents of Joplin that they would have access to the entirety of the report.”
Stark said Loraine’s report raised issues that he said require the city of Joplin “to watch and guard the public trust.”
“The public trust has clearly been ignored in the manner in which this report was presented,” Stark said. “The release of the public records is the only way it can be restored.”
The Globe’s attorney, Charles Buchanan, asks that the city be required to show why a court order should not be entered ordering the city to disclose those documents. He asks that the court set a date as soon as possible for a hearing on that order.
In its reasons in support for the order, the Globe contends that such reports are public under a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that held that investigations involving public employees are open when the report was compiled as the result of investigation into crimes or suspected crimes and not as a personnel matter.
CHARLES BUCHANAN, the Globe’s attorney, also cites language in the Missouri Sunshine Law that states that it is the state’s policy that public business be a public record.