A petition drive that would force a state audit aimed at investigating issues surrounding the firing of City Manager Mark Rohr is under way in Joplin.
Petitions are being circulated by a group including Kim Seavy, a local resident who at recent City Council meetings has voiced criticism of the panel’s actions.
“We just got the petition forms from the auditor’s office today, and I’ve already got half a dozen signatures,” he said Thursday.
Spence Jackson, spokesman for state Auditor Tom Schweich, confirmed that the office had “received inquiries from several people in Joplin interested in a petition audit.”
“We have advised them about the process,” he said.
Seavy said he wants the state audit to “air out” actions by the council surrounding Rohr’s firing and payments to a private investigator who was hired to look into potential council ethics violations.
He said he and others believe the steps used to fire Rohr were in violation of Joplin’s Home Rule Charter, and that the council majority “violated its fiduciary duty to Joplin citizens” by paying the investigator, Tom Loraine, more than was agreed to for the probe.
Seavy said the petition effort involves about 12 people he described as “a core group,” and that more than 150 people have “liked” the group’s Facebook page: justice4joplin.
“This is not just a lone voice in the wilderness,” he said.
He said he wants the auditor “to clarify the process by which the city manager was relieved and explain how they (the council majority) managed to pay (the investigator) nearly 100 percent more than the contract.”
Loraine was hired by the City Council to look into ethical questions concerning two members of the council, but the probe expanded to focus on Rohr. The council voted 5-4 to fire him on Feb. 4, the same night it received the investigator’s report.
The investigator’s bill totaled $81,819. The council had authorized up to $45,000 without further authorization. The council has voted, also 5-4, to pay the full amount of the bill.
Seavy said the council should have to specify its reasons for firing Rohr, adding, “Calling it a personnel matter doesn’t wash.”
To trigger a state audit in a city the size of Joplin, the group must submit signatures equivalent to 10 percent of city residents who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election. Seavy said the auditor’s office has told the group that it must collect 1,776 signatures of registered voters inside the city.
“Actually, it comes out to 1,775.5,” he said. “We’re going to try to gather more than 2,000, because we have to make sure we get enough.”
Signatures submitted to the auditor’s office are checked by county clerks to ensure that the signers are registered voters living in the city.
If the petition drive is successful, the state audit would begin “as soon as staff members are available,” according to the state auditor’s website.
Costs of the audit would be billed to the city, based on the hours worked by the auditing staff members and their expenses. Though the auditor’s website cites a state law saying a petition must state the estimated cost of the audit, it also states that actual costs are difficult to estimate until an audit starts.
“After we had an opportunity to do some advance work and look at the scope of what’s necessary and the time frame, we would be able to provide them an estimate,” Jackson said.
ACCORDING TO THE STATE AUDITOR’S WEBSITE, once a petition audit has started, the auditor’s office will meet with the governing body to explain the steps and answer questions. It also will ask the petition group to prepare a list of concerns, though all the concerns might not be audited.