Clay County Commission may have violated the Missouri Sunshine Law Feb. 6 when it went into a private executive session without specifically citing on its agenda what would be discussed.
That’s the opinion of Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law matters for the Missouri Press Association.
Maneke said section 610.022, subsection two of the law clearly states that a “specific exception” or exceptions to meeting publicly be spelled out on the agenda.
“The idea of an agenda is to give the public an idea of what will be discussed,” Maneke said.
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The commission’s agendas typically include a business item executive session(s), but in this case, failed to cite both the general exception category (such as “contracts” or “legal matters) and a reference to the applicable exception.
“A public governmental body proposing to hold a closed meeting or vote shall give notice of the time, date and place of such closed meeting or vote and the reason for holding it by reference to the specific exception allowed pursuant to the provisions of section 610.021,” the statute’s subsection says.
Kevin Graham, the county counselor, said the agenda item “Executive Session(s)” is used when it’s not known 24 hours before a meeting if the board will needed to meet privately.
“If we know what we’re going to discuss, we’ll include that in the agenda,” Graham said. “If something comes up between when we post the tentative agenda and when we meet, we have always felt it’s appropriate to add it to the agenda we can do it.”
New Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley repeated the requirement in response to a frequently asked question on his website. Hawley said the public should be receive 24 hours notice of a proposed closed meeting, as well as “the reason for holding it by reference to the specific exception.”
The issues of notice and reason were compounded Feb. 6 when the commission voted to move the executive session from the next-to-last item on its long agenda to one of the first.
The board cited “legal matters” and “contracts” as its reasons for meeting privately, but before the vote, Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte asked to confer with Graham.
When it came time to vote, Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway and Western Commissioner Gene Owen overruled Nolte’s motion to keep the executive session where it was on the agenda.
When the board adjourned at 10:40 a.m. to meet privately, it estimated the closed session would take 30 minutes. The board returned to the room more than three hours later, long enough for two office holders to spend their own money to buy pizza so the audience and county employees could eat.
Moving the executive session – and breaking for an unusually long time – followed Ridgeway’s successful motion to remove items from the agenda that has drawn members of the public to the meeting hoping to address the board.
The items included Nolte’s proposals to cease further county action concerning the renewal of leased boat slips at Smithville Lake and to revise the county’s uploaded, 600-page budget to make it searchable by specific words and topics.
The issue of boat-slip renewals had already become controversial enough that the county attorney advised board members and county administrators to avoid commenting because legal action was pending.
The lengthy executive session didn’t deter Don Milum, a slip holder, and Stacy Long, a slip holder whose renewal was denied, from taking the remarkable step of addressing the media and public before the commission returned.
With a television camera and four reporters in the room, Milum and Long consulted with a sheriff’s deputy before holding their impromptu citizen’s meeting in the commission room.
“I came here to talk about several issues, but this board, your representatives, maneuvered and took the items I was here for off the agenda,” said Milum, who pointed toward to the podium and noted the board was “in their back room. I’m so sorry the public has been treated this way.”
Long, the former slip holder, said she was upset that what she termed a simple case of mismanagement by the county had mushroomed out of control.
“I want to be heard,” said Long, who had spoken to the commission the previous week. “They backed me into a corner and forced me to hire an attorney. They’re using bullying tactics against the citizens of Clay County.”
The 25 or so people left in the room applauded both speakers.
When the commission finally did return, the board moved through the agenda before reaching “Comments from the audience on non-agenda items.” Several other people, including Liberty resident Johnathan Northweather, addressed the board’s actions.
Northweather charged the county of attempting to procedurally maneuver around a clause in slip-holders’ contracts that had allowed for renewals during a 30-day grace period.
“If it’s not out in public, it’s tabled, then thrown under the rug,” Northweather said. “Your executive session this morning, it was the most disrespectful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Due to the observance of Lincoln’s birthday Feb. 13, the board’s next meeting won’t be until Feb. 27. That drew the criticism of Nolte, who said the board owed it to the public to meet more frequently. Nolte said he would personally meet with slip holders in the commission room at 7 p.m. Feb. 15.