August 14, 2013 - The Missouri attorney general is asking the Crestwood Board of Aldermen for more information about an unofficial meeting conducted by half the board to discuss the proposed redevelopment of Crestwood Court.
In a July 30 letter addressed to the board, Attorney General Chris Koster said he has received several complaints about the aldermen's compliance with the Open Meetings and Records Law, also known as the Sunshine Law, specifically regarding the unofficial meeting. Along with his letter, Koster enclosed five booklets outlining the provisions of the Sunshine Law.
“The complaints allege that four members of the board … met at a local Starbucks on June 4, 2013, and discussed the redevelopment of Crestwood Court without posting notice,” Koster wrote in the letter to board members, asking for a response to the allegations from the city by Aug. 13.
In an Aug. 12 letter to Brenda Siegler, Koster's Sunshine Law coordinator, new Crestwood City Attorney Lisa Stump wrote that the meeting did not violate the Sunshine Law due to lack of a quorum. Stump took over for former City Attorney Rob Golterman on Aug. 1.
The booklets Koster sent will be provided to aldermen, and Stump's law firm Lashly & Baer will train city staff and aldermen on the Sunshine Law at the request of City Administrator Mark Sime, Stump added.
Centrum Properties has not yet formally withdrawn its redevelopment proposal, after partner Sol Barket told city officials and the Call through email that he was withdrawing the plan. Mayor Jeff Schlink and Barket are not talking to the press about issues related to Crestwood Court for most of the month of August.
In an email to the Call, Schlink called Koster's letter "an unnecessary distraction that could have been avoided."
The aldermen who have voted for studying the current redevelopment proposal for the mall site, Richard Breeding and Darryl Wallach of Ward 1, Mary Stadter of Ward 2 and Dan Tennessen of Ward 4, have said they met that night at Starbucks in Crestwood to discuss how to move redevelopment forward after a board work session had been scheduled and canceled by city officials for lack of a quorum. At least two of the members, Breeding and Wallach, met in the parking lot of Crestwood City Hall at 6 p.m., when the original work session had been scheduled before it was canceled.
“The meeting was posted and communicated as canceled,” Schlink wrote in a June 6 email to the board. "There was no meeting scheduled. The public outcry and perception of a Sunshine Law violation will be a separate matter.”
Because the unofficial gathering of aldermen at the coffee shop did not have a quorum, Stump and Golterman agreed it did not violate the Sunshine Law because it was not, by the definition of the law, a "meeting" — which requires a quorum, or five of the eight board members, to be present.
"It's kind of a non-issue," Stadter, who was elected to the board in April., told the Call. "(The law) states that you can't have an intent to circumvent the Sunshine Law. We obviously had no intent to circumvent — we sat out in the open."
After Golterman gave his opinion on the legality of the meeting, Ward 4 Alderman MikeTsichlis asked what Golterman thought of any future such meetings being held by board members.
“When all members of the board have been notified that a meeting that had been scheduled has been canceled and is no longer publicly posted, is it appropriate to the letter and spirit of the Missouri Sunshine Law to hold an impromptu gathering of half the elected board at a private location to discuss matters of city business which are frequently on the agenda at BOA meetings?” he wrote.
In a July 3 email response to Tsichlis, Golterman wrote, "Mike, based on the facts — somewhat limited — that were relayed to me shortly after the meeting took place, I did not believe that a Sunshine Law violation had occurred. That said, whenever some number of board members less than a quorum meet to discuss city business, there certainly can be the perception that the intent is to evade the law.
"It would be in everyone’s best interest — including the city’s — to limit such gatherings."
The meeting may have had an effect on redevelopment votes. Prior to the vote the week before the Starbucks meeting on planner Peckham Guyton Albers & Viets, or PGAV, Schlink said he would break a tie and hire the planner to perform a study of the mall site.
In an email sent the night of the June 3 meeting, however, Schlink wrote, “The scheduled Tuesday meeting at a local business cemented the divide of 4-4 for all votes on this matter.”
During another vote on hiring PGAV at the board's July 23 meeting, Schlink told Stadter he would not break a tie to hire the planner. The vote failed 5-3, with Stadter voting against the planning study so she could bring it up at a future meeting.
PGAV withdrew its proposal the next day, however, writing to Schlink that it does not want to be associated with any more negative votes against the redevelopment project. At each PGAV rejection, board members who voted against the study noted they did not vote against PGAV, but were instead registering their discontent with Centrum's proposal.
Former Ward 4 Alderman Steve Nieder requested the city investigate the meeting at Starbucks at its June 25 meeting, asking for minutes of the meeting and why aldermen showed up for a meeting that had been canceled. Schlink told Nieder that city officials would look into the issue.
Reading a statement in response to Nieder’s questions, Wallach said that the board learned late on June 3 that the following day’s meeting would be canceled.
“I had suggested to the other aldermen, Stadter, Breeding and Tennessen, to meet at Starbucks, yes,” he said. “We were sitting outside in the public, not private. We were having frank discussions about the way this board cannot agree to meet on delicate issues … There was no proprietary information discussed. There was no deliberate attempt to evade the Sunshine Law.”
Wallach, who was first elected to the board in 2009, said that he had met outside of scheduled board meetings with Ward 3 Alderman Paul Duchild and former Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel “on fact-finding issues about our police fleet. At no time, again I stress at no time, did these discussions place the city at risk for any Sunshine Law violations.”
In an email to the Call, Miguel said he did not recall any meetings with Wallach and Duchild about the Police Department.
The night of the meeting, Stadter wrote an email to the entire board saying that the four board members had met: “Four aldermen arrived ready for the work session at 6 p.m., and as we did not have a quorum we decided to go over to a local business and discuss how we thought we might move this issue of the redevelopment of the Crestwood Court property forward.”
The next day, Tsichlis emailed city officials with a question about the Starbucks meeting.
“(If) another alderman stepped into (Starbucks) while the group was gathered and seated with laptops open, would it be incumbent upon the group to inform the alderman of the nature of the meeting and what was being discussed?”
The delayed work session eventually took place July 9, with all aldermen in attendance.
Koster's booklet explaining the Sunshine Law states that even public meetings with no quorum could be violations of the law if they were held to deliberately evade the law, or if the meeting is held to “discuss and decide” public business that would later be ratified in a meeting.
No decisions brought back to the board for ratification appeared to have been made in the Starbucks meeting, however, Golterman said.
It would be easier to identify a Sunshine Law violation if the four aldermen who unofficially met later went to the other half of the board outside official channels and tried to change their votes based on what went on in the unofficial meeting, said Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke.
Emails among the board and city officials provide a timeline of the events leading up to the meeting at Starbucks.
City Administrator Mark Sime emailed the board at 1:24 p.m. on June 3 that the session scheduled for the next day would be canceled since four members could not attend.
At 9:19 p.m., Wallach emailed Breeding, Tennessen, Stadter and City Clerk Tina Flowers, “Rich, Dan and Mary, let me know if you are still able to meet/convene at 6:00 tomorrow. Tina, I’ve only copied you in to see if the Aldermanic Chambers is still available.”
“Yes, I can still attend,” Stadter replied that same night.
Wallach asked Sime what would happen if a board member changed his or her mind the next day and was able to meet, giving the board a quorum to meet. That would not matter since public notice for the meeting had already been taken down, Sime replied. Public notice of a government meeting must be posted at least 24 hours in advance, according to state law.
This story was updated to include former City Attorney Rob Golterman's email response to a question posed by Ward 4 Alderman Mike Tsichlis.