Appears to commit perjury in reference to
Belton Fire Department service offer
By Allen Edmonds
HARRISONVILLE – The chairman of the Western Cass Fire Protection District Board of Directors, target of a lawsuit by a citizens group revealed to be comprised of two members of the same board, stumbled through a full day on the stand Thursday during a bench trial where he was revealed to know little about the operations of the department, why some decisions were made regarding taxpayer funds and potentially committed perjury by denying under oath that the City of Belton had ever made an offer to cover citizens in danger of having no fire protection at all due to the lack of trained volunteers operating the department.
John Webb was appointed to chair the board in early 2022, but has since clashed with fellow board members Kerri VanMeveren and Darvin Schildknecht over issues such as financial management and adherance to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which governs public access to meetings and records.
VanMeveren, Schildknecht and an unidentified citizen formed a group called “Citizens for Transparency and Accountability” last year, and filed suit against the district and board members Webb, Marty Hardman and Suzanne Hosterman as well as board secretary Chris Johnson individually in August, asking the Cass County Circuit Court to name a Special Master to operate the district.
The case was originally set for trial in October, but the defendants won a delay until March 1, when it was scheduled for a two-day proceeding before Presiding Judge Mike Wagner.
The two days allotted proved not to be sufficient, as the plaintiffs were only able to get halfway through the case, “Citizens” attorney James Layton of St. Louis told Wagner at the end of the second day.
Attorneys said they believed they could finish in four additional days. Wagner scheduled the trial to be continued May 23, with a back-up date of Aug. 1.
In his opening statement on Wednesday, Layton asserted that the “public interest” of residents living in the Western Cass Fire Protection District, which includes Cleveland and rural properties south of Belton, “is not being serviced, because the public is not being protected.”
Beginning with alleged violations of the Sunshine Law, Layton said there have been issues with both public notification and the use of closed sessions.
“You can’t just do things to evade the Sunshine Law. It’s required that you tell citizens about a meeting 24 hours in advance, and you give them an idea of what’s going to be discussed.”
He cited a specific incident in which the board scheduled a meeting less than 24 hours in advance, “because a board member (Webb) was scheduled to go on vacation and he wasn’t sure what his phone reception was going to be.”
The use of closed sessions has also been haphazard, he said.
“Time and time and time again this board takes up items of discussion that should not be discussed in a closed session. In Missouri, the burden rests on the defense to show that the topics being discussed belong in a closed session.”
Meanwhile, defense attorney Aaron Racine called the case “really about the law according to Kerri VanMeveren. When she doesn’t get her way or a vote goes against her, she gets upset.”
Dysfunction on the board has caused VanMeveren to attend meetings for the past several months virtually, but when she does, she is forbidden to participate in executive sessions and her audio is often cut off by Webb while she is speaking, an allegation backed by Schildknecht and an area fire chief who testified Wednesday.
First on the stand for the plaintiff case was Steven Shaumeyer, a consultant hired by Western Cass to conduct a study of the district’s condition. He released his report earlier this year, and “my conclusion was that they currently are not able to provide competent and consistent fire protection,” he said.
“The first step to having an effective fire department is having effective leadership. You would expect a department with the budget Western Cass has to be able to provide an adequate level of protection.”
He said the department’s current chief spent his career working for Honeywell before retirement and neither he nor any of the small group of volunteers onboard have National Fire Protection Association certifications of Firefighter I and Firefighter II, which the state requires.
Mount Pleasant Fire Protection District Chief Gerald Wisdom testified that a truck arriving from Western Cass at this point is nothing more than a “truckful of spectators.”
Thursday’s testimony from Webb was evasive and confusing during questioning by Layton.
He claimed not to know why or how decisions such as how to determine which seats would be up for election this April, or how the decision was made to reimburse him personally for security cameras was made.
After returning from lunch, Webb apologized for appearing confused, saying his “blood sugar had gone crazy on him,” and he’d had to get someone else to drive him back to court.
But later in the afternoon, when asked about a proposal put forward by Belton Fire Department to institute a cost-per-call agreement to cover the Western Cass district along with the Dolan-West Dolan department, while Western Cass rebuilds its force, Webb denied under oath there had ever been such an offer.
“I don’t recall seeing it,” Webb said.
“So, if the City of Belton said you declined their offer, that wouldn’t be true?” Layton asked.
“It was not rejected, because it never came to the Board,” Webb said.
However, Belton Fire Chief John Sapp said two offers were made to the Board by him last summer, and a final offer was presented to district’s chief just recently, whom presented it to Webb, then informed Sapp that the proposal had been rejected, he said.
Wisdom, who has also attended Western Cass meetings in his role as Mount Pleasant chair, also testified that Belton had made multiple offers during meetings he had attended.
Belton is required to provide mutual aid for structure fires in the district, whether an agreement is in place or not. Responding to those calls with no reimbursement or corresponding mutual aid has become a cost burden to the city, which is why Sapp sought approval from the Belton City Council for a formal agreement.
When Western Cass turned down the agreement, Sapp said, he advised the council to reject the plan, as it did during the Feb. 28 meeting.