FRONTENAC — More than three months after it received an open records request it was legally required to respond to within three days, the City of Frontenac has once again changed its explanation of its handling of requests for records relating to the firings of top city employees.
In September, following the city council’s surprise 6-2 vote without any prior discussion — at least not in public or in an official council executive session — to fire City Administrator Brad Reams, City Attorney Tim Fielder, and City Clerk Terri Kutz, the Pittsburg Morning Sun made a series of public records requests under the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) to the City of Frontenac.
Former Frontenac Mayor Linda Grilz, who resigned following the firings at the same meeting Sept. 16, has previously said she thinks the council must have violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act (KOMA) — which prohibits the majority of members of a governing body such as a city council from meeting outside of their official meetings to discuss matters they can make decisions on. She said this week she still believes the city council violated the KOMA.
“It was just too much of a setup how things fell into place,” Grilz said.
After making a motion to allow John Macary — then a council member and later the interim mayor — to be allowed to participate in the meeting via speakerphone on Councilmember Pat Clinton’s cell phone, Clinton made the motion, which Macary seconded, to terminate the three city employees.
Initially the city said it could not provide the documents requested — as it did not have an attorney, because, without giving any reason, it had just fired its attorney. That excuse did not hold water, Max Kautsch, legal adviser for the Kansas Press Association, said at the time, and was “simply a pretext for refusing to act as required under applicable law.”
Then, in a move denounced by the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, the KPA and Kansas Association of Broadcasters, the city changed its tune, saying it could provide some of the records requested, but would require thousands of dollars to produce the documents.
Specifically, the city said it would cost $3,500 to provide records of “All electronic and written communications, including but not limited to letters, text messages and emails, sent to or from Frontenac City Council members John Macary, Pat Clinton, LaDonna Pyle, Mike Snow, Marc McCully, David Hogard and Brad Reams, Tim Fielder, Terri Kutz, and Linda Grilz for the period Monday, August 26, 2019 to Tuesday, September 17, 2019.”
The city would need an additional $1,500 to provide “all audio recordings on city issued cellular devices for Brad Reams and Terri Kutz,” Jayme Mjelde — who had just been appointed interim city clerk after previously being fired from her position as court clerk — wrote in response to another records request made shortly after the firings of Reams, Fielder and Kutz and Grilz’s resignation.
Earlier this month, however, the city again changed its story, saying it could provide some — but not all — of the records requested Sept. 17, and a “conservative estimate” of the price of providing those records would be $775 — less than 25 percent of the $3,500 it had previously claimed the broader set of records would cost. Specifically, the city said it could provide electronic and written communications to and from Reams, Fielder, Kutz and Grilz, but not those of city council members.
“Please be advised that we have received identical requests from other entities, and if you are not the first party to obtain the records, we will not charge a fee for an identical item produced,” Frontenac City Attorney Stephen Angermayer wrote in a letter to the Morning Sun dated Jan. 9.
Angermayer’s letter came the same day the Kansas City Star published the latest in a series of scathing editorials condemning the city government’s actions since the September firings.
The Morning Sun previously published an editorial shortly after the firings, noting that if the city government “acted within the law and in the best interests of the residents of their city we’ll be the first to say so, and they should want to put this controversy behind them.” If it did not, though, this newspaper suggested, those who acted improperly “should be held accountable.”
The more recent pieces penned by the editorial board of the much larger Star, however, have gone significantly further, saying the city has “stonewalled” records requests and “sandbagged the public and the media,” and describing the situation in Frontenac as a “small-town meltdown” and a “crisis in government lawlessness.”
A formal complaint has been filed with the Kansas Attorney General’s office and is currently under review, the Star has noted, and the former officials terminated in September are preparing a federal lawsuit against the city.
The Star’s recent editorials have included a call for changes to the state’s open records law. In its latest volley, while additionally calling for changes to Kansas marijuana laws, the Star noted that City Clerk Mjelde was fired from her previous position as court clerk — in accordance with city policy — for coming up positive on a drug test for marijuana, and that an attorney for Mjelde “acknowledged but disputed the positive test for marijuana, writing that she was using CBD oil to relieve joint pain after chemotherapy for breast cancer.”
While saying the firing “should be a source of moral outrage” due to the strictness of the state’s marijuana laws, the Star notes, “Frontenac city officials maintain that they’ve been told by drug-testing experts that CBD oil could not produce such a strong positive for marijuana.” The paper additionally writes that “unbelievably,” following the firings of Reams, Fielder and Kutz with no reason given for their terminations, Mjelde “was reinstated — with a promotion, no less, to city clerk.”
Not everyone agrees with the Star’s interpretation of events. Prior to being sworn in as Frontenac’s new mayor this month, and before the latest Star editorial was published, David Fornelli said recently that Mjelde, along with new City Administrator John Zafuta, have “been doing great, so I’ll just follow their lead.” Fornelli said Tuesday he still had “full confidence” in the city staff, and no additional comment on the recent Star coverage.
Mjelde also declined to comment Tuesday on issues brought up by the recent Star editorials.
As Angermayer’s reference to “identical requests from other entities” suggests, however, the Star is not the only other media outlet besides the Morning Sun to take an interest in the turmoil in Frontenac’s city government in recent months. Other news organizations that have reported on the topic include the Associated Press, KOAM-TV, and the Sentinel, a publication of the Kansas Policy Institute libertarian think tank.
The Sentinel noted in a December report that it had submitted an identical records request to the Morning Sun’s to the City of Frontenac “but got a very different answer.”
After receiving a response similar to the one sent to the Morning Sun Jan. 9, saying city council communications were exempt from disclosure, the Sentinel reported that it “sent Angermayer another letter outlining serious concerns” with that response.
In October, Ron Keefover, president of the board of directors of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, decried Frontenac’s handling of records requests made regarding the September firings.
The City of Frontenac’s response to “this straight-forward request for emails during a limited time period is an indication that Frontenac city officials must have something to hide,” Keefover wrote at that time.
Following the more recent change to Frontenac’s explanation for withholding records requested in September, as outlined in its Jan. 9 letter to the Morning Sun, Keefover again weighed in on the issue.
“The city’s current stance as just announced by the Frontenac city attorney not only continues to hide the mysterious events leading to the terminations, but also objectionably uses the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) as a shield against access to the simple exchange of emails among city council members, who after all were elected to serve the very public they have slammed the door upon,” Keefover wrote. “In our view, KORA, as unfortunately invoked by the city, cries out for change by our legislature. And that change is something the Sunshine Coalition will seek.”
While Angermayer’s legal interpretation may technically follow the letter of the law, the Kansas Legislature “needs to amend K.S.A. 45-217(g)(3)(B) so that the provision cannot be used to hide emails and texts that should be accessible as public records because they are about public business,” Keefover wrote.
With the 2020 legislative session just getting underway, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will act this year to address the concerns Keefover and the Star have raised.