The Lee’s Summit City Council was split as to whether to conduct hearings on removing Diane Forte from her District 1 seat, forcing the decision to Mayor Randy Rhoads who voted against the idea.
Council members Phyllis Edson, Diane Seif and Dave Mosby voted to hold hearings, while Trish Carlyle, Rob Binney and Craig Faith voted no. Forte abstained.
Rhoads made a few comments before the vote. He said that incident spotlighted some “highly questionable” procedures and policies which have tightened and been managed. He said Forte is no longer doing business with the city.
“Council relations have fallen to the lowest I’ve seen in years,” Rhoads said. He said he was shocked and saddened when he approached a respected community member to serve on a city board, and that person rejected the opportunity saying, “No thanks, not with this council.”
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“This council needs to figure out how to work together going forward,” Rhoads said.
Rhoads noted that if the council went forward with a hearing it could drag on for months. He said that Forte would be up for reelection next April if she decides to run for a second term and voters could make a decision then.
The debate was prompted by Forte’s April settlement with the Missouri Ethics Commission after she failed to follow state law when business from her trophy company went to the parks department without public bids. The state law requires such bids for amounts of $500 or more. The sale did not violate city policies in place at that time. The two sales were for totals of $1,170 and $768. In a consent order, she was fined $1,938 but the fine was reduced to $387 if paid within 45 days.
Her critics contended that amounted to “malfeasance” under the charter and that she should step down or be removed.
At its May 11 meeting, council members debated whether to hold hearings as allowed by the City Charter regarding whether she should forfeit her office because of the misstep.
The council argued briefly over the merits of claims against her. Some noted there weren’t any criminal charges and the amount of money was relatively small, contending that her offense didn’t rise to a level requiring a hearing. Others contended that the council was obligated to conduct a hearing to restore public trust in the council, and suggested that perhaps a Missouri Court could get involved.
Voters already had recalled Chris Moreno from his District 4 seat. Moreno had been a steadfast critic of Forte and purchasing policies of the parks department.
Edson said the issue is one of trust and the city must hold its elected officials to the high standards it expects from its employees. “Only by holding a public hearing do we have any hope of earning back that trust,” she said.
Mosby said that the council is going to be writing an ethics code, newly mandated by charter amendments, and that its actions on the issue would set precedent. The council needs to follow ethics provisions in the charter or otherwise it’s “window dressing,” he said.
Mosby said that Forte hadn’t made the transactions known directly to the council. She had debated on putting the parks sales tax on the ballot and was parks board liaison. He asked rhetorically what would have happened if she hadn’t been caught.
“This is who we are. We are going to be remembered by this. Are we going to follow an ethics policy?” Mosby said.
The opposing view was that nothing new would be discovered by additional hearings.
Faith said that Forte already had admitted she violated the law, but unknowingly.
He noted that Forte had reported the transactions on her financial disclosures to the city before the problem of the state law was discovered. He said she attempted to comply with the law as she understood it at the time.
“We’re in turmoil here; this doesn’t need to be as divisive as it is,” Faith said.
He said if there was another “smoking gun” it would have revealed by now.
“Questions have been asked and answered,” Faith said.
Faith said the amount of money involved wasn’t “substantial” as outlined in the charter. “If that is substantial income to Councilwoman Forte, Councilwoman Forte has bigger problems than that,” he said.
Carlyle said, “This councilwoman didn’t willfully conceal this.” She said the day after the problem was reported, she informed the council and apologized and also “self-reported” the problem to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
“Take a vote on what we’re looking at and stop giving a show,” she said.
Diane Seif said the council members were obligated to go forward with hearings because of the oaths they’d taken to uphold the U.S. Constitution, state law and the charter. “It is an important issue as a group we need to address,” she said.
Councilman Rob Binney said Forte had undergone enough public flogging for her mistake.
He asked if Forte had won the lottery by selling a couple of trophies to the parks department.
“A was great ‘gotcha’ moment,” Binney said. “She’s paid the price. The fine is nothing compared to what she’s been through for the last 11 months.”