By Allen Edmonds
Documents provided by the City of Belton Monday afternoon in response to a number of North Cass Herald open records requests revealed, among other things, a possible Sunshine Law violation in connection with the May 10 executive session of the city council that resulted in the unanimous vote to offer former Fire Chief Norman Larkey a severance package in exchange for his resignation.
Additionally, the documents revealed that Belton taxpayers footed nearly $11,000 in legal services payments in the month of May alone to Michelle Stewart, the attorney that City Manager Alexa Barton said specializes in human resources matters for the city. She works for the Hinkle Law Firm, LLC, which is based in Wichita, according to invoices sent by the firm. Stewart works out of the firm’s Overland Park office.
But the issue that may have run afoul of Missouri’s Open Meetings law may have actually had nothing to do with the Larkey case.
During the same late Friday afternoon executive session convened a day after the suspension of the chief and his assistant, Bobby Sperry, the council also discussed issues relating to the possible cancellation of the city’s contract with Jim’s Disposal.
Under the category of “Discussion of matters pertaining to Legal Actions,” and “Discussion of matters pertaining to negotiated contracts,” Barton discussed ongoing issues with Jim’s Disposal, according to the meeting minutes.
“Additionally, Ms. Barton discussed the possibility of enacting the 60 day without cause clause pursuant to Article VIII paragraph 2 of the contract. If the City were to change haulers, Ms. Barton is recommending the City contract for the purchase of trash and recycling carts today, so we can be prepared.”
Discussion of enacting the 60-day clause allowing the city to cancel the contract with Jim’s would clearly be a matter authorized for secret discussion, according to the Missouri Sunshine Law.
But discussing the “purchase of trash and recycling carts today, so we can be prepared,” would be a matter that likely would not qualify for closed-session discussion under any provision of the Sunshine Law.
Further, a motion authorizing city staff to purchase those carts in an amount “not to exceed $850,000, and authorizing the City Manager to execute any and all documents necessary to carry out the intent of this motion,” was made by Councilmember David Clark, according to the minutes. The motion was seconded by Councilmember Chet Trutzel. According to the minutes, Barton told the council the carts would arrive within 60 days of being ordered, and there was council discussion of only buying one cart, instead of two (per household), which would reduce the cost.
In the end, the motion failed to achieve a majority. Four councilmembers, Trutzel, Clark, Lorrie Peek and Dean VanWinkle voted in favor; while Tim Savage, Ryan Finn and Mayor Jeff Davis voted against. Councilmembers Gary Lathrop and Stephanie Davidson had left the meeting, which began at 4:31 p.m., at 5:18 p.m., just before the discussion on the trash issue began.
A motion to purchase just one trash cart per residence for a cost of $550,000 was made and passed during the following Thursday’s special meeting – during open session.
The first part of the meeting dealt with the Larkey issue. In 37 minutes, the attorney Stewart discussed her findings of a “personnel investigation at the fire department,” according to the minutes.
Councilwoman Lorrie Peek then moved to “direct and authorize City Staff and counsel for the City to negotiate Settlemen
t and Release Agreements with Fire Chief Norman Larkey and Assistant Fire Chief Bobby Sperry, according to the minutes. Lathrop seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. All councilmembers were present for the vote. Also present in the meeting, besides Baron and Steward, were attorney Padraic Corcoran and Assistant City Manager/Finance Director Sheila Ernzen.
The North Cass Herald will ask Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to investigate the possible Sunshine Law violation. According to the Attorney General's Office, "knowing” violations result in individual civil fines up to $1,000. “Purposeful” violations result in individual civil fines up to $5,000, plus attorneys’ fees. Injunctive relief is also available. When the public interest requires, courts may void actions taken in violation of the Sunshine Law.
Meanwhile invoices from the Hinkle Law Firm, LLC, revealed that Stewart had provided services for the city regarding employment matters since before the Larkey investigation – and that the actual “independent, third-party investigation” only took parts of two days.
According to the invoices, Stewart “traveled to/from Belton, conducted multiple interviews and discussions related to employment situation, and drafted a memorandum regarding same on May 9, the day Larkey was suspended. She billed 7.8 hours at $280 per hour, costing the City $2,184. The following day, the day of the executive session, Stewart’s invoice read, “Complete investigative meetings; discuss and outline results of the same; communication with opposing council regarding investigation and attendance at City Council meeting to discuss investigation and results.”
For May 10, Stewart billed 8.3 hours, for a total of $2,324.
That was the day that Barton requested Larkey meet with Stewart regarding the investigation, but told Larkey he could not bring his attorney, so Larkey refused.
Also in May, Stewart billed 2.8 hours on May 6 to travel to and from Belton to discuss an investigation, meet with Ernzen to discuss an investigation and review email correspondence from Ernzen regarding an employment investigation. On May 8, the day prior to Larkey and Sperry’s suspension, she billed 1.7 hours for a meeting to discuss “employment investigation.”
She also billed hours on May 11, May 12, May 13, May 14, May 15, May 16, May 17, May 20, May 24, May 28, May 29, May 30 and May 31 for various matters regarding employment, severance, a resignation and draft memorandum regarding the resignation and “review/revise a press release.”
Total billing for the month of May was $10,724 for 38.30 hours, plus $223 for travel expenses and a meal at Panera during the investigation, according to the invoice, bringing the final charge to $10,947 for May.
For the month of November 2018, the City paid $3,048.58 for Stewart’s services; $1,522.32 in December; $140 in January; and $2,698.00 in April. Business in January and April was related to an employment issue in the Park Department, according to the invoices.
Additionally, documents produced by the City showed that a total of eight severance agreements had been produced by the city in the time frame since Barton was promoted to city manager in June 2018. Personally identifying information had been redacted, as had been expected, however, the dates of the agreements were also redacted. It was also unknown whether all eight severance agreements had been accepted, or whether these were simply the number that had been produced. That information has been requested.
They ranged in length from six months with full pay and benefits to two weeks.
Also produced was a full employment roster from the day Barton began as city manager, to compare to the present employment roster in order to gauge turnover. A report on that will be provided by the North Cass Herald when that research is complete.