A Gladstone man has said in a civil lawsuit that two Clay County commissioners misused taxpayer money when they mailed birthday cards and free museum passes to some registered voters who were 62 years old and older.
Commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen spent at least $10,000 for the birthday cards and postage over the past three years, the suit said. Two free admission tickets to the Jesse James Farm and Museum in Kearney were allegedly enclosed with the birthday cards.
Owen could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Ridgeway said in a text message that “I’m doing the same outreach in County government that I did for years in the Missouri House and Senate & continues to be done by House and Senate members today. Yet now I’m suddenly targeted for doing what I and many other elected officials do to reach the people and get their input. One man disagrees that elected leaders should listen to the people so he ran to the courthouse with a shallow & wasteful lawsuit designed to cut the people’s voice out of government.”
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In the lawsuit filed in Clay County Circuit Court, Gary S. Markenson accused the commissioners of using county funds for their own private purpose and benefit by targeting older residents who voted in one of the two most recent general elections. The birthday cards and free passes were not sent to every county resident.
“It was inappropriate use of county resources, and if a public official wants to send birthday cards out to their constituents, then by gosh they should use their own money to do it or send them emails, it’s free,” said Markenson. He is the former executive director for the Missouri Municipal League, which trains elected officials on various administrative and ethical issues.
Ridgeway and Owen were each elected to a four-year term in November 2012.
In March 2013, Ridgeway and Owen, along with then-Presiding Commissioner Pamela S. Mason, talked about ways to improve the commission’s image among residents.
Suggestions included improving the county website or starting a newsletter. Also that March, county aide Nicole Brown asked the county’s information director to provide her a list of county residents 62 years old and older who had voted in at least one general election since 2010, according to the suit.
Before mailing the birthday cards, the suit said, two of the county’s legal advisers said that using county dollars that targeted specific residents violated Missouri statutes and the state constitution. They also said it was an inappropriate use of county money because not all residents would receive the free museum passes.
But the suit said Ridgeway and Owen disregarded the written and verbal opinions and used the list to mail the birthday cards, the free passes and a color brochure with their photo and contact information. About 1,000 cards have been mailed out each month for the past three years, according to the lawsuit.
Markenson said he received a birthday card on April 14.
The county is losing revenue by providing the free museum passes, the lawsuit said.
In his lawsuit, Markenson asks the judge to determine whether Ridgeway and Owen violated the Missouri Constitution and Missouri law. Also, the judge will be asked to appoint a special prosecutor who will determine whether criminal charges should be filed, according to the lawsuit.