NEOSHO, Mo. — An investigation into Sunshine Law violations has resulted in an order from the Missouri attorney general for the Neosho City Council and city staff to attend a training session about the law.
The finding is the result of an investigation into complaints from two Neosho residents — Rebecca Williams and Heather Bowers — regarding what they said were violations of the Sunshine Law, a collection of the state’s open-meetings and open-records laws, in 2018.
Williams’ initial complaint to the attorney general stated that a quorum of City Council members improperly held meetings via email and text messages. Bowers’ complaints to the attorney general stated the city was charging excessive fees for records in Sunshine Law requests, deleting and editing records covered in those requests and not retaining city records.
In a letter to the city, the attorney general’s office said it was concerned by “questionable destruction and retention practices,” as well as a previous practice of texts among City Council members about public business.
“Such practices significantly increase the probability that violations of the Sunshine Law will occur, and they diminish the amount of governmental transparency in the city of Neosho,” said Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Walker in a letter to the city. A copy of the letter was sent to the Globe by the attorney general’s office.
In a prepared statement delivered during the council’s meeting Tuesday night, Mayor William Doubek acknowledged the findings.
“We welcome such opportunity to engage in such training, and appreciate the attorney general’s fair, impartial findings as they relate to the complaints,” Doubek said in the prepared statement.
Near the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Angela Thomas made a motion to reimburse fees Williams and Bowers paid for their record requests. That motion passed 4-1, with Councilman Jon Stephens voting against it.
The findings from the attorney general’s investigation center on a series of group text messages between Sept. 4, 2018, and Sept. 11, 2018, in which city business was discussed, including cutting cellphone allowances in the city budget, a proposed employee agreement for an incoming city manager and salary changes for a city employee.
The texts were halted when City Attorney Steven Hays told the group that their messages included a quorum of council members and constituted a meeting. State law requires public governmental bodies to discuss business in a public meeting that has been advertised to the public.
Doubek was a member of the council in 2018, as were current members Carmin Allen, Tom Workman and Stephens. The mayor was Ben Baker, who resigned in December 2018 after being elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. Thomas was chosen in 2019 to fill the remainder of Baker’s term and was elected to a new term in April 2019.
Baker said the group texts were originally a tool for then-City Manager Dana Daniel to quickly inform council members about situations.
“When (a new councilman) came on, I don’t know if he didn’t know of the Sunshine Law,” Baker said. “He initiated them a couple of times, and the city attorney shut them down immediately.”
Hays said that the city still employs a similar system for notifying council members of emergency matters such as water line breaks. That system uses emails and does not allow for replies, and each sent email is stored according to the state’s record retention laws.
The attorney general’s findings also centered on excessive fees for record requests and the destruction of records.
Sufficient evidence of excessive charges for Sunshine Law requests was not found, according to the findings. The investigation ruled that the disagreement over fees between Bowers and the city “appeared to be a breakdown in communications” and that an increase in fees in response to an expansion of time required to produce records was proportional.
Deletion of text messages was found to be “questionable,” according to the probe. The allegation was made in a new Sunshine Law request from Bowers, who made the request after the city had provided records for Williams’ request.
While the investigation discovered evidence of text messages being deleted, it was unable to determine whether the content of those messages was covered under Missouri law, which states that some transitory or nonrecord materials do not need to be retained. It pointed to Allen saying that he had deleted text messages in the past and was instructed to save them in the future.
It further noted that the council’s practices for retaining records could have led to the deletion of records that fell under Williams’ request, but it found no evidence of such deletion of records.
Baker said he still believes the investigation was political in nature because he was running for state representative at the time. Yet he agreed with the attorney general’s findings about violations.
“There was no nefarious thinking by the council,” he said. “We weren’t trying to do anything outside of the public eye. But it does point to the fact that we need as much training on the law as possible. We want to be transparent with people.”
Williams, who described herself as a community activist, said she had received a tip from another resident that she should pursue her records requests.
Williams said she was satisfied with the attorney general’s response, but she lamented that the order for training does not involve all the people who served on the City Council at that time.
“My only concern is that all the people who were on the council at that time won’t be required to take the training,” Williams said. “Clearly it was badly needed. New members will be required, and that’s a good thing.”
Bowers, a former council member who was removed by the council in 2011 for missing meetings, said she believes the investigation remains incomplete and that the penalty does not go far enough. She still has concerns about the cost of records requests and disagreed with the report stating that there was confusion over her request.
“I don’t understand how the attorney general didn’t look back further,” Bowers said. “And if the city would have databased those records, that takes a lot less money than scrambling around to research what should have already been documented.”