Independence Examiner, Saturday 01/19/02

Testimony continues in Sunshine Law case

By Darla McFarland
The Examiner

   Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark said Friday that the county's Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints is the "gatekeeper" of open government and the agency "most important to our social compact."

   "In that light, I think it is absolutely essential not to rush to judgment," said Clark, who has presided this week over a lawsuit charging Sunshine Law violations at the agency.

   Attorneys in the case had anticipated making final arguments Friday afternoon but lengthy testimony and cataloging of documents ran through the day. The case is set to resume on Tuesday, when attorneys will address each of the seven allegations in the suit and make their final statements.

   Plaintiffs Karen Turner and Robert WitbolsFeugen have charged that the office and its citizen oversight commission violated state law by improperly closing two meetings, conducting public business in private, and withholding, or delaying the release of, public documents.

   The defendants have not challenged the accusation that they improperly closed meetings. Several commissioners have testified that they closed a July 29, 1999 meeting for "deliberations," which is not a listed exception for closed proceedings under the Sunshine law.

   The commissioners also admit they did not provide the required 24 hours notice before closing a Jan. 24, 2000, meeting to discuss potential litigation.

   On the stand Friday, Commissioner Michael Hunter said he recognizes, in retrospect, that the commission should have acted differently. All the commissioners said they did not know their actions violated the Sunshine Law at the time, although most of them attended a Sunshine Law briefing in 1998 and received copies of the statute.

   The defense is more vigorous, however, regarding the open records charges.

   The case may come down to an issue of credibility, as Judge Clark noted earlier this week, with the plaintiffs saying they never received documents and the agency saying the documents were turned over.

   In testimony Friday, Office of Human Relations complaint investigator Gladys Holmes said she handled Turner's original complaint against the Jackson County Sheriff's Department filed in May 1998.

   Holmes testified that she filed all documents in the case in Turner's complaint file and that the entire file was available to Turner before her May 1999 hearing. Holmes said the file included a copy of a transcript received from the Sheriff's Department in November 1998. The transcript reflected a conversation between Turner and a Sheriff's deputy, who Turner says endangered her daughter by releasing her name during a murder investigation.

   Holmes also testified that she personally sent Turner a copy of that transcript on Nov. 2, 1998 and produced a letter from the complaint file to that effect.

   Turner and WitbolsFeugen have testified that they never received the transcript, even after repeated requests to the Office of Human Relations, and that it was not contained in Turner's complaint file when they reviewed it in May 1998.

   Office of Human Relations administrative secretary Barbara Baston testified Friday that she reorganized Turner's file into several folders "for easy retrieval of documents" but could not recall when she did it. In the course of reorganizing, she said, she removes some documents from the original complaint folder and put them in other folders.

   If Clark finds for the plaintiffs, he could fine Office of Human Relations Director Deborah Tircuit and the commissioners up to $500 for each violation. The judge has said he expects to issue a decision quickly following closing arguments.

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

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