Independence Examiner, Thursday 01/17/02

Citizens outline difficulties getting information on case

By Darla McFarland
The Examiner

   Testimony continued Wednesday in the civil lawsuit claiming Sunshine Law violations by the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints, with both plaintiffs taking the stand.

   Karen Turner and Robert WitbolsFeugen told about their interactions with the office, going back to May 1998. They said it amounted to obstruction and frustration.

   Turner said her requests for documents and information were routinely ignored by OHRCC staff and members of the citizen commission that oversees the office.

   Turner testified that she asked at least five times for the commission's decision in her May 27, 1999, complaint hearing. The decision was finally turned over to her in November 1999.

   Commission members testified Tuesday that they deliberated the case in a closed session July 29, 1999. Commissioner Michael Hunter produced a draft decision document that circulated among commission members for three months before a final decision was approved.

   Turner and WitbolsFeugen sued the commission charging that the group violated Missouri open records laws and improperly barred the public from two meetings.

   Commission members admitted Tuesday that they did not provide 24 hours notice of closed sessions, as required by Missouri law, or provide reasons for calling emergency closed sessions. The commissioners said they were unaware of the 24-hour requirement at the time.

   WitbolsFeugen, who will complete his testimony today, said he is pursuing the suit to uphold the principle of open government.

   "I have gone to great expense to prove my point that government should be open and that when a citizen requests access under the Sunshine Law, it should be granted in a timely manner," he said in testimony Wednesday.

   The suit stems from a complaint Turner filed with the 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.

   The commission's decision was that the sheriff's deputy had not acted improperly.

   The plaintiffs are asking the court to overturn the commission's decision in Turner's original complaint and to fine the OHRCC director and the commissioners for Sunshine violations.

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

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