Pevely-Style Actions Shot Down by Area Judges

26 Apr

Two recent court rulings should prompt Pevely to change some practices that would now appear to be unlawful. The practices are charging money for redaction of material for open records requests and limiting what can be said in the public comment portion of board meetings.

Sunshine Law Overcharging

First, in January, a St. Louis County judge said that the county prosecutor could not charge fees to a Sunshine Law requestor for the time it took to segregate open (releasable) records from closed records. The government body has to do this free of charge (they can still charge for finding and copying documents).

Pevely is in the habit, when receiving certain records requests, of demanding a payment of $125 dollars up front so the city attorney, Sean Westhoff of Duggan & Westhoff in Imperial, can separate open from closed records. In one instance, this review was merely of minutes of closed sessions of board of aldermen meetings to “redact the personally identifiable personnel information.” That requires an attorney?! In another instance, Pevely claimed that attorney fees were needed to provide a copy of a lawsuit settlement and the results of closed session roll call votes. Again, no attorney is needed for this; all of this material is clearly a public record under Missouri law. Is the city trying to thwart the Sunshine Law, or merely taking bad advice from another bad JeffCo municipal lawyer?

Pevely’s actions are quite similar to what happened in the St. Louis County lawsuit. The decision there only impacts that county though. But if someone were to sue Pevely over this, they might have a good case. But government entities often rely on the fact that most people have neither the money or inclination to pursue such a lawsuit. Pevely should stop charging exorbitant legal fees for Sunshine requests.

Public Comment Censoring

In University City, a resident spoke during public comment to call for the censure of the mayor. The mayor flipped out, had the police remove the man, and banned him from future meetings. A federal judge responded:

In her order on Tuesday, District Judge Audrey Fleissig also ordered the city to pay Roberts’ lawyer fees and costs totaling $3,060, according to the consent decree.

Fleissig also ordered that the city “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that personal attacks on councilmembers will be ruled out of order” and “cease making a public statement at city council meetings that councilmembers’ motives may not be called into question.”

Also:

The decision also calls for the city to “develop, implement, and enforce a written policy prohibiting content-based restrictions on speech during the public comment period at city council meetings.”

In Pevely, the city demands that only topics on the meeting agenda can be mentioned in public comments. But how are residents supposed to air their concerns about issues that the city has not deemed important enough to put on the agenda? The public comment section is a way for residents to publicly raise concerns that all city officials may not be aware of (sometimes certain officials like to withhold information). This policy is just a way to censor comment. The city does allow you to request to be added to the meeting agenda, but this requires action days in advance of the meeting, creating hurdles to being heard.

The Fox School District also has a very restrictive comment policy. Not only do they limit the public to speaking on agenda items, they don’t allow the mention of specific employees (so you can’t say “the superintendent gave her son a scholarship” after your emails to the board go unanswered) and they ban non-residents from commenting. In addition, they demand a “specific outline” in advance of what you want to say. They can use this to decide to shunt you off into a closed session, ensuring that other residents can’t hear what you have to say.

In light of Judge Fleissig’s ruling, both of these entities need to reconsider their draconian public comment policies. I hear that a change may be coming in Pevely, which would be a good thing.

Advertisements

One Response to “Pevely-Style Actions Shot Down by Area Judges”

  1. john giancola April 27, 2017 at 7:28 am #

    Thanks,

    I don’t live in Pevely but I am in the Fox District and I’m glad you pointed this out. Little govt’s are sometimes more restrictive of our freedoms then the BIG entities.

    Like

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: