816 North

Backlog of Sunshine Law requests reduced, but legal fees stir controversy

Even the divided Clay County Commission agreed: County Counselor Kevin Graham needed help reducing the backlog of Sunshine Law requests.

But the commission – and several office holders are split on whether the county should continue employing a Kansas City attorney who charges $373.50 an hour.

Graham had been handling the requests on his own, he said, until the load multiplied.

According to logs kept by the county clerk’s office, twice as many information requests were made in 2016, an election year, than in 2015. That prompted the commission to hire Spencer Fane, a Kansas City, Mo., law firm to handle the backlog.

“I’d love to see the number of Sunshine requests over the past several years,” Graham said. “I know I saw a big spike in 2016. I’ll bet there were more than 100.”

Records show there were actually 152 requests in 2016, compared to 82 the previous year.

County officials say election-year spikes are common.

“The 2016 spike was caused by people running for office,” Western Commissioner Gene Owen said. Eastern Commissioner Luann Ridgeway agrees, as does County Auditor Carol McCaslin.

The 82 requests during the 2015 non-election year of 2015 supports the theory that off years are lighter in requests. But even in 2014 – the year in which current Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte was elected – there were 100 requests, 52 fewer than in 2016.

The pattern is further jumbled by request totals for 2013 (100), a non-election year, and 2012 (54), an election year.

Some say courthouse controversy also impacts the number of requests. That, too, may have contributed to the 2016 total.

Ridgeway, an attorney and former state senator, negotiated the contract with Spencer Fane. The county commission approved the agreement on June 6, 2016.

The cost of Spencer Fane and the direction of its work have stirred controversy. Fees charged by W. Joseph Hatley, lead attorney for the firm, have been targeted by several office-holders.

“It’s a complete waste of taxpayer money,” said Recorder of Deeds Katie Porter, an attorney and former commissioner. “Sunshine Law isn’t that specialized an area that an attorney with a degree shouldn’t be able to handle it.”

With the request overload reduced, Porter, Nolte and others say the Spencer Fane contract should be terminated.

Nolte planned to make that point at the board’s March 13 meeting, but his discussion item was removed by the other commissioners.

On March 20, Nolte criticized the new legal expenses. “I think the costs are out of control,” he said.

Collector Lydia McEvoy, an attorney, agrees with those who think Spence Fane is no longer needed.

That’s especially true, she says, since responsibility for Sunshine administration shifted earlier this year from the clerk to county administration.

“Having our requests forwarded to multiple administrative personnel and reviewed by legal counsel, and then being told that we have to pay exorbitant fees for county employees to pull the information, is an absurd waste of taxpayer dollars,” McEvoy said.

Ridgeway argues that specialized skills are needed to ensure that the Sunshine Law is complied with.

“We want to be accurate, fair and nonpartisan in lawfully responding to Sunshine requests,” Ridgeway said. “Hiring an expert in the field was the right choice.”

Some requests are simply too involved for a legal generalist, she said.

But McEvoy, the county collector, disagrees. She recalled a taxpayer who requested “routine tax sale information … the type of request I answer frequently.”

“On one hand, he (the taxpayer) got a response from me, clarifying one or two little details and promising him the records in a timely manner,” McEvoy said. “Then, just minutes later, he got a complex legal letter (from Spencer Fane) asking all sorts of irrelevant questions and threatening that the record would be difficult or expensive to provide.”

Hatley has said that when feasible, less specialized or complex tasks – a document review, for instance – could be assigned to less expensive personnel.

In a Dec. 21, 2016 bill for $22,193.00, Hatley accounted for 41.6 hours of the 77.27 hours billed. The fees ranged from $121.50 an hour to $400.50.

In another summary, Hatley’s hours made up roughly 68 percent of the 101 hours billed.

Some research and costs have sparked controversy. For example, two charges totaling $352.35 were billed to review Missouri statutes, the Clay County code and case law related to the commission’s “authority over elected officials.”

The question of commission authority drew comment at the board’s March 13 meeting. Assessor Cathy Rinehart asked the board to provide “documents related to legal invoices” that dealt with the issue.

“I want to know what I’m up against,” she said.