Independence Examiner, Tuesday 06/24/03

County weighs changes for complaint commission

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

Bob WitbolsFeugen says he is optimistic now that the Jackson County Legislature appears to be taking serious steps toward reviewing the actions and procedures of the Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints.

For more than a year WitbolsFeugen has been seeking legislative action on his complaints about the OHRCC.

Legislator Robert Stringfield, 1st District at-large, said he wanted the Legislature to bring closure to the issue one way or another. He asked other legislators if they believed the matter was closed or if there were still lingering concerns.

"Closure is difficult to say," said Legislative Chairman Dennis Waits, 3rd District. "We thought we addressed the issue, but some of his concerns seem to have changed."

WitbolsFeugen's complaint stemmed from the investigation into the murder of his daughter, Anastasia. A county sheriff's deputy told suspects the name of a friend of Anastasia's who was an informant.

That friend's mother, Karen Turner, complained to the OHRCC. She later sued because she was denied access to documents and because the OHRCC deliberated in closed session without giving her a chance to cross examine or testify.

The OHRCC then ruled against Turner's complaint.

A circuit judge ruled that the OHRCC director and several commissioners violated the Sunshine Law but didn't reverse the decisions or assess the plaintiff's attorney fees to the guilty parties.

Legislator Ron Finley said the Finance and Audit Committee looked at WitbolsFeugen's re quest for the Legislature to pay his legal fees, but a legal opinion from an outside attorney showed this wasn't possible under state law.

Finley said a legal opinion was also received regarding WitbolsFeugen's appeal to the Legislature on the decision rendered by the OHRCC during the illegally closed session. The OHRCC hasn't revisited this, and the Legislature hasn't accepted WitbolsFeugen's appeal. Finley said the legal opinion stated county ordinances allow the Legislature to review decisions of the OHRCC, but not change them. So it really isn't an appeal.

WitbolsFeugen has said this is one reason he wants the Legislature to review the ordinances governing the OHRCC. Legislator Fred Arbanas, 3rd District at-large, previously said the Legislature should review these ordinances. However, nothing has been done.

"We have reviewed the charter several times already and reduced the number of people on the County Legislature in the last few decades, but never took a close look at the OHRCC," Arbanas said Monday. "I think the county executive should appoint a citizen panel to do that. I think the county executive should put this in her pipe and smoke it for a while."

Waits said legislators have never been sure what Witbols Feugen wanted from them. He asked WitbolsFeugen to list issues he wanted addressed. Waits also voiced support for a citizen review of the OHRCC.

"We need something in writing to allow us to bring this to closure and to bring all the new legislators up to speed on what is going on with this," he said.

WitbolsFeugen said he would be willing to submit a list of concerns and recommendations. He also said he was pleased that the Legislature finally looked like it was willing to seriously considering his complaints.

"I'm very pleased by the decision of the Legislature. I'm confident that once they receive my reply, the framing of the issues will be much clearer for the Legislators, so that they'll be prepared to make decisions and look at some of the suggestions I've made," said WitbolsFeugen. "I think what they've done today is take a great step toward improving the relationships between the citizens and the county."

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail or call 350-6322.
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