NEOSHO, Mo. — A quorum of Neosho City Council members discussed city business in group text messages in September without prior notification of a meeting.
A group text message chain consisting of Neosho Mayor Ben Baker, former interim City Manager Dana Daniel and city council members Jon Stephens, William Doubek, Tom Workman and Carmin Allen on Sept. 11, 12 and 13 mentions a salary change for the assistant city manager, a city water main break and the beginning of street overlay projects.
Records of these group texts in the form of cell phone screenshots were obtained through an open records request submitted Sept. 17 by Neosho resident Rebecca Williams, who then posted the records on her Facebook page when she received them on Oct. 9.
An additional group message on Sept. 13, in which City Attorney Steve Hays was also included, mentioned the prospective first day of work for Leland Butcher, the new Neosho city manager.
According to the records, these communications were stopped quickly by Hays in the second group when he sent a text notifying the council members that the messages were sent among a quorum and constituted a meeting.
"Gentlemen, we need to end this conversation," Hays's text read. "Technically this is a meeting and it was not noticed. Please cease conversation as a quorum is present. If you want to talk to one person other than yourself (individually) that is permissible. Thank you."
In an interview, Hays said the messages stopped as soon as he was made aware of them and that the interim city manager thought that he was communicating effectively with the council by giving them information in a group text message.
"No business was conducted, no decisions were made, no vote was made, no polling of the council was made," Hays said. "I was made aware of it and it has stopped."
Jean Maneke, a Missouri Press Association attorney, said that according to the Missouri Sunshine Law, a group text message about city business between a quorum of council members is considered a meeting whether or not any action was taken, and that such text messages are a violation of the law.
"If they are talking to a quorum, then it's a meeting and they should have had notice," she said. "The triggering (of a meeting) is the discussion of public business."
The Missouri Sunshine Law requires that governmental bodies give prior notice of the time, date, place and a tentative agenda of each meeting, including meetings that will be "conducted by telephone or other electronic means," Maneke told the Globe.
Councilman William Doubek said that he was not aware that a group text message between a quorum of council members was considered a meeting until Hays informed the council in the text.
"I didn't know anything about it until Mr. Hays said something," Doubek said. "It was stopped and we haven't done it since."
Globe attempts to reach Baker, Stephens, Workman and Allen were unsuccessful.
Daniel said that no one had gathered any information from him concerning the text messages, and declined to comment further as he had not seen any information about the issue.
Hays said he believes that Williams filed the request and posted the records publicly on her Facebook page because he thinks she supports Angela Thomas, the candidate who is running against Baker for State Representative of the 160th district in the Nov. 6 election.
"I believe this is a politically-motivated action to bring some sort of embarrassment on the mayor," Hays said. "The proper procedure is to file a complaint with the attorney general, and to post it on social media I think demonstrates the political motivation of all of this... If there's an issue the attorney general can handle it. As to the election, which is less than a month away, the citizenry can decide who is acting in bad faith at this time."
Williams said that she filed a complaint to the Missouri attorney general's office regarding the group text messages, and that her political views are not related to why she made the records request.
"Who I support in the upcoming election has nothing to do with the City Council's violation of the open meeting law," she said.
The next meeting of the Neosho City Council will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, in the City Hall Council Chambers, 203 E. Main St.