Parkville residents think their government’s too secretive with development project

Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston
Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston File photo

A Kansas City attorney has asked the Missouri attorney general to look into Parkville city officials’ alleged violations of the Missouri Sunshine Law regarding a proposed development that includes a baseball complex, apartments and a grocery store.

Edward Greim, a Graves Garrett LLC attorney, represents Jason Maki, a Parkville resident who, along with several other residents, have objections to the proposed development project near Interstate 435 and Missouri 45.

Greim sent a nine-page letter to Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office outlining claims that Parkville elected officials and professional staff have used private emails to conduct public business, structured meetings with a developer to avoid making them open to the public and insufficiently responded to several requests for public records. The law requires government records and meetings be accessible to the public, with some exemptions.

Maki and others say Parkville officials sought to minimize public input and scrutiny to allow the development to proceed.

“I think we’re very concerned about hiding the ball,” Greim said. “That is a problem that exists in state and local government. Trying to do as much as possible under the radar and springing a fully developed plan at the last moment is a problem.”

Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston said the city is trying to cooperate with voluminous records requests from Maki’s attorney and that the complaint to Schmitt’s office is another attempt at fulminating political opposition to elected leaders.

“They’re just accusing us of all kinds of things,” Johnston said.

Maki, who referred questions to Greim, is one of several contributors to a newly formed political action committee called Citizens for a Better Parkville. It submitted its first campaign finance report on Jan. 15 that showed $21,000 in contributions. Maki is the committee’s largest donor with $8,024 in contributions, records show. The committee has spent $2,500 on consulting from the political consulting firm Axiom Strategies.

Greim’s letter said Parkville officials appeared to be using private emails to communicate about city business. Private emails are subject to disclosure under the Missouri Sunshine Law, but the use of private email addresses can make it more difficult for the public to access the records and relies on an honor system for public officials to produce them.

Johnston admitted that city officials had used private emails but said it was not an intentional means to sidestep disclosure laws.

“We use private emails a lot because all of us are part time, especially our aldermen,” Johnston said. “We all have city emails but when you’re responding on your phone and you’re not set up, it defaults to personal (email).”

She acknowledged that using private emails could make recovering public records more difficult.

“It’s not intentional and we have gotten better about that since it came to our attention,” Johnston said.

Parkville elected officials were also accused of meeting with developers in small groups to avoid forming a quorum, which would constitute a public meeting that would have to be publicized.

“It’s not unusual for a developer to come in and talk to elected officials,” Johnston said. “Every other city does this.”

A spokesperson for Schmitt acknowledged receiving Greim’s letter but would not comment on any subsequent steps that the office would take.

Steve Vockrodt is an award-winning investigative journalist who has reported in Kansas City since 2005. Areas of reporting interest include business, politics, justice issues and breaking news investigations. Vockrodt grew up in Denver and studied journalism at the University of Kansas.