Independence Examiner, Wednesday 01/23/02

Judge finds violation of law

By Darla McFarland
The Examiner

   Circuit Court Judge Thomas Clark ruled Tuesday that members of the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints violated the Missouri Sunshine Law in four of seven incidents alleged in a lawsuit.

   The judge found that Office of Human Relations Director Deborah Tircuit and seven members of the citizen commission improperly closed two commission meetings. The judge also ruled that Tircuit violated open records rules by denying or delaying public access to records.

   Under the ruling, only Tircuit, Commission Chairman Gregory Gerstner and Commissioner Mi chael Hunter were found to have committed purposeful violations. Tircuit was fined $300 for her role in the two closed meetings and records violations. Hunter was fined $100 as the acting chairperson of the closed meeting on July 29, 1999. Gerstner was fined $100 as chairperson of the closed meeting on Jan. 27, 2000.

   Five other commissioners were found to have violated the law by closing the January 2000 meeting. However, the judge found that they did not purposefully violate the statute. The Sunshine Law requires a purposeful violation in order to impose a fine.

   Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner, who filed the lawsuit, said they had mixed feelings.

   "I feel that everything we asserted and that we had physical proof for, we got our ruling," WitbolsFeugen said.

   They had alleged several other violations related to records requests but had no written proof.

   The lawsuit stemmed from a complaint Turner filed with Office of Human Relations in 1998 against the Sheriff's Department. She said 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 left the country in fear.

   The complaint reached a hearing in May 1999. The commission decided that Turner's complaint was without merit. In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said the commission violated the Sunshine Law in a series of acts relating to Turner's complaint.

   They also had asked the court to overturn the commission's decision in Turner's original complaint. Judge Clark declined to do that.

   "That was extremely disappointing to me," Turner said following the decision. "To me, it doesn't make sense to find that they (the commission) acted improperly and then not overturn their decision."

   Tircuit and Gerstner could not be reached for comment this morning.

   Judge Clark has yet to decide who will be responsible for attorney's fees in the case. Under the Sunshine Law, he could assign those costs to the defendants. He said Tuesday he was reluctant to assess those costs, estimated at $40,000, against the individual defendants. It was unclear Tuesday whether Clark could charge the costs to Jackson County. A decision is expected Friday.

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

Previous article.

Next article.

Return to list of news accounts.