The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 30, 2014

Court to hear arguments on Globe request for pages from city investigation

JOPLIN, Mo. — A judge will conduct an evidentiary hearing Monday to decide whether the portion of the Joplin City Council investigative report concerning former City Manager Mark Rohr should be released to the public.

The Joplin Globe and its parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., filed the lawsuit seeking public disclosure of documents withheld by city administrators from the final report of investigator Tom Loraine, an Osage Beach attorney.

The missing pages of the final report, along with all of the report’s exhibits and testimony, are sought under the Missouri Open Meetings, Open Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. in the Division No. 3 courtroom of Judge David Mouton.

The Globe contends that it is the burden of the city to prove that the nine pages that have not been released should remain closed as a personnel record, and that the city cannot meet that burden.

The City Council intended for the report to be public to clear up public questions about the conduct of two council members, the Globe contends.

“The City Council made this clear when it specifically stated in its contract with Mr. Loraine that the report would be an open record under the Sunshine Law,” reads the Globe’s court filing. The Globe contends that the report was reclassified as a personnel record “because it is critical of the operations of the city and, by implication, touches upon the performance of city employees.”

The city contends that the records are properly closed under a section of the law pertaining to the hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of an employee.

The city cites a previous court ruling that says, “Missouri recognizes a right of privacy in personnel records that should not be lightly disregarded or dismissed,” ensuring that employees have a right to privacy of employment records. The brief also cites another case in which personal information is said to be “information relating to the performance or merit of the employees.”

There is ample evidence against the city’s contention, the Globe argues, in addition to the declaration in Loraine’s contract. Records required by the law to be public include “any report, survey, memorandum or other document or study prepared and presented to the governmental body by a consultant or other professional service paid for in whole or part by public funds.”

The city contends that the disputed portion of the report was heard in a closed session of the City Council to protect the privacy of Rohr and other city employees.

That contention is weakened, the Globe argues, because the council fired Rohr in an open meeting on Feb. 4 and fired him without cause.

In addition to the report and its exhibits, the Globe argues that witness testimony should be open to the public because the statements “are not about human resource matters, but concern an investigation into the conduct of elected officials and address government operations, public funds, corruption and governmental integrity and impartiality.”

The city replies that the language in the Loraine contract covered only the report itself, not the testimony.

“It is also undisputed that Mr. Rohr’s performance as city manager was not part of the initial charge or specific scope of Mr. Loraine’s investigation,” making information about Rohr a personnel record rather than part of the public report, the city contends. Revealing it could subject the city to a lawsuit by Rohr for violation of his privacy rights, the city argues.

It is in the public’s interest to disclose the documents sought by the Globe, the newspaper’s brief contends, because “the report describes significant problems with the operation of the city government and potential risks that could occur if further secrecy and shadowy dealings are permitted.”

Representation

THE CITY IS REPRESENTED by Karl Blanchard and Peter Edwards. The Globe is represented by Charles Buchanan and Andrew Buchanan.

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