City Attorney Peter Edwards must know everything about the Sunshine Law since he is, after all, the city attorney and the city attorney should know about the Sunshine Law. Especially when the city the attorney represents was just criticized in the state audit for frequently violating that law.
When I wrote two days ago that Edwards and the City Council violated the Sunshine Law, there was no doubt in my mind. I had come across this particular violation before although it was more than a quarter of a century ago.
This type of violation was also addressed in the January 20, 2014, Sunshine In Missouri blog post written by Jean Maneke, the Kansas City attorney who advises Missouri newspapers on Sunshine Law issues:
I had an interesting discussion today with a reporter about a county commission's actions. Between two budget meetings, the commissioners apparently had decided to take a chunk of funds for an expenditure out of the county emergency fund.
Questioned by the clerk as to when that decision was made, the commissioners indicated there had been no formal meeting at which that decision was made. Finally someone suggested that the county attorney had called each of them individually and discussed the issue.
Now, let's just stop with those facts. In this case, it was clear a consensus had already been reached when the commissioners came together and acted without any in-meeting discussion to amend the budget in that fashion. Decisions like that are not simply a product of osmosis. Even the commissioners acknowledged that there had been discussion, albeit with the county's attorney who apparently had engaged in a series of what some have at times referred to as "round-robin" calls. Others (I'm thinking of Jay Nixon while he was serving as the State's Attorney General) have called this a "wagon-wheel" decision-making action. Regardless of what terms are used, it involves a third party calling the individual members of the public body, conveying to each what the others are thinking and continuing these calls until a consensus is reached.
This is not an action that gets you a free pass under the sunshine law. If you go back to a discussion by the Western District Court of Appeals some time ago, while considering a series of meetings of fewer than a quorum of members of a public body in an effort to keep from getting a quorum together, the Court said "In such closed meetings with less than a quorum, deliberations could be conducted and votes taken with a public meeting then being held to ratify publicly that which had already been done in private. This would violate the spirit of our Sunshine Law...."
Regardless of whether it's a meeting of small groups or one-on-one calls with someone who passes the information on among all the other members and facilitates arriving at a consensus without the formality of a meeting, it's still illegal and courts won't give a public body's members a pass just because they manage to discuss a hot issue in a way that the public cannot participate. Playing games like this is still illegal.
The situation that Maneke writes about is the same thing that occurred in Joplin Sunday. A vote was taken without any notice. The law simply does not permit that. There was no emergency that could have given Edwards an excuse, albeit a weak one. A meeting could have been scheduled for Monday before the scheduled hearing or the hearing could have been postponed and a closed meeting scheduled in its place to discuss the agreement and the joint statement.
Maneke was consulted by the Joplin Globe and in an article posted today is quoted as saying there is no legal provision for doing what Edwards and the City Council did.
While both Maneke and Edwards said that an official, formal vote to accept the deal at next Monday's meeting will take care of the problem, Edwards' behavior is a reminder of a more serious problem that has affected those in leadership in this city.
Edwards still won't acknowledge that he made a mistake.
That's a familiar refrain.
-Mike Woolston admits to not being transparent enough, but to nothing else. (Of course, Woolston, unlike Edwards, might face criminal charges if he admitted anything.)
-As late as June 2014, Mayor Michael Seibert was praising Wallace Bajjali and saying that those who criticized the firm's lack of accomplishment did not know anything about getting projects underway. As far as I can tell, he has never admitted he was wrong in that contention.
-For that matter, has anyone in city government acknowledged that there were mistakes made in the hiring of Wallace Bajjali, or in failing to cut ties with the firm after the Loraine Report made that recommendation?
That same lack of taking responsibility appears to be at epidemic proportions in this city, with leaders of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, what used to be (and may still be) the Joplin Progress Committee, and the Joplin Globe all avoiding taking responsibility for much of anything.
When I make a mistake, I admit it and I would be willing to bet most of those who read this follow the same policy. It's never fun to acknowledge an error, but the unwillingness to do so among the elected leaders and the so-called elite of this community have contributed to the lack of faith we have in those leaders
It is time that those who want to lead us stop blaming the tornado for any errors and simply admit when they are wrong.
Trying to bury the mistakes and say, "We must keep moving forward," is no longer an option.