Independence Examiner, Wednesday 01/16/02

Families say Sunshine Law was broken

Hunter said now he understands the commission should have
given 24-hour notice of the closed sessions but, at the time, he
"didn't give it a single thought."

By Darla McFarland
The Examiner

   Members of a Jackson County citizens review board admitted in court Wednesday that the group violated Missouri Sunshine laws by failing to properly notify the public about closed sessions.

   Michael Hunter and Gregory Gerstner, both members of the Office of Human Relations and Citizen Com plaints Commission, testified that the group held closed sessions on July 29, 1999, and Jan. 27, 2000, without giving 24 hours notice as required by Missouri law.

   The admissions came in the second day of testimony in a civil lawsuit filed against commission by Karen Turner and Robert WitbolsFeugen. They want civil fines against members of the commission for Sunshine Law violations and a reversal of a commission ruling in a complaint Turner filed in 1998.

   Hunter said he now understands the commission should have given 24-hour notice of the closed sessions but, at the time, he "didn't give it a single thought."

   "I was more concerned with dealing with Ms. Turner and her complaint," Hunter said.

   Hunter and Gerstner both said they were unaware of the Sunshine Law requirements for closed sessions. However, both men said they and other commissioners received a briefing on the Sunshine Law from the county counselor's office in 1998.

   The lawsuit also alleges that the commission closed several sessions for purposes not covered by the Sunshine Law and that commission staff improperly withheld records of those meetings.

   The suit stems from a complaint that Turner filed with commission in May 1998 against the Jackson County Sheriff's Department. She believed that a Sheriff's deputy improperly revealed her daughter's name to another source in a murder investigation. As a result, she said, her daughter was threatened, harassed and forced to leave the country.

   After several delays, Turner's complaint had a hearing in May 1999. OHRCC Director Deborah Tircuit testified that Turner's hearing was the first conducted by the commission in her recollection.

   Tircuit also testified that she and Gerstner met with County Counselor Jane McQueeny on June 9, 1999, to discuss hearing procedures. The county counselor's office was also acting as defending counsel for the Sheriff's Department in Turner's complaint.

   Turner says she never received a full hearing before the commission and that she was denied the opportunity to question witnesses and present evidence.

   The commission went into closed session on July 29, 1999, to deliberate their decision in Turner's case. Those deliberations were never made public. In October 1999, the commission ruled that the Sheriff's deputy did nothing wrong.

   Turner said she wants that decision set aside by the court and she wants all records of the commission's deliberations and evidence in her case.

   Testimony continued today with Turner and WitbolsFeugen expected to take the stand. Attorneys for both sides said testimony should wrap up today. The case is being heard by Judge Thomas Clark in Jackson County Circuit Court.

To reach Darla McFarland e-mail or call her at 816-350-6321.

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