A Jasper County circuit judge agreed Thursday to proceed with an evidentiary hearing on a lawsuit by The Joplin Globe and its parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., seeking disclosure of city documents related to a City Council investigation that resulted in the firing of the city manager.
Judge David Mouton agreed to an expedited hearing for the case. He set it for 9 a.m. Monday, March 31, or, if it cannot be held that day, for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, April 1.
Karl Blanchard, the attorney representing the city, questioned whether the Globe had filed the correct type of lawsuit, and he also said the city may need to bring former City Manager Mark Rohr into the lawsuit, which he said would take time. But in the end, Blanchard agreed to the expedited schedule.
Andrew Buchanan, the attorney representing the Globe, told the judge that the Globe wanted the case to be heard as soon as possible so that the public would have the information before the April 8 election.
Jack Golden and Trisha Raney, two of the five members of the City Council who voted to fire Rohr, are seeking re-election then. Another incumbent seeking to be returned to his seat, Mike Woolston, was criticized in a report prepared by Tom Loraine, a special investigator the council hired to look into ethical questions regarding the conduct of Woolston and another councilman, Bill Scearce. The council heard the report on the probe behind closed doors on Feb. 4. Afterward, in an open session, the council voted 5-4 to fire Rohr. Nine pages of the 27-page report that were said to have focused on Rohr were not disclosed to the public.
City officials declined to release those pages, saying that since the information is about Rohr, it is considered a personnel record that does not have to be released under Missouri’s Open Meetings, Open Records Law.
The Globe contends that a contract between the city and Loraine states that Loraine was to issue written findings and conclusions, “and this document shall be an open record made available under the Missouri Sunshine Law.”
Buchanan told the judge that “the records that are at issue in this case we believe fall squarely within that definition of a public record. And, in fact, that definition specifically identifies documents prepared by third-party consultants for public governmental bodies as a public record.”
It is the city’s burden to show that the records may be closed under the law, he said, “because from the very beginning in the agreement with Mr. Loraine, they acknowledged and recognized that this report would be a public record, would not be a confidential record but would be a public record,” because of its mention in the contract between Loraine and the council.
The Globe requested the documents orally and in a written open-records request, which was denied by the city on Feb. 14, citing the provision to exempt records that relate to personnel.
Buchanan asked the court to grant a preliminary writ directing the city to release the records or to set a hearing to give the city time to reply to the order sought to release the records.
Blanchard questioned whether the Globe had filed the correct type of lawsuit. He also said the court should not grant the writ because he believes there should be an evidentiary hearing before any ruling is made. Blanchard said the city may need to bring Rohr into the lawsuit.
“This is more than just a document the city has,” Blanchard said of Buchanan’s contention that the report is subject to the open-records law as one generated by a consultant. “It deals with, at least in the city’s view, a personnel record” that would require that Rohr be represented in the litigation. He said it also involves city employees who testified who thought their testimony would be confidential.
Blanchard said the city is entitled to its due process in the lawsuit, and he sought more time to respond to it. “It’s going to take time. It’s not going to be done in one week or two weeks,” he said.
Buchanan agreed that information should be exchanged by the two sides but said the legal work should be expedited because of the impending election.
The judge said it is within his discretion to set a hearing on the Globe’s writ as filed.
MARK ROHR was hired Tuesday night, three weeks after he was fired in Joplin, to be city manager at League City, Texas.