Independence Examiner, Wednesday 03/26/04

Seattle man to review OHRCC

by James Dornbrook
The Examiner

The Jackson County Legislature agreed to hire an independent ombudsman from Seattle, Wash., to conduct the first comprehensive review of the Office of Human Relations and Citizens Complaints in 35 years.

The OHRCC was created by the Jackson County Charter to investigate complaints from citizens about discriminatory or other unjust actions of county officials. The OHRCC was given powers allowing it to act independently of the County Legislature and the county executive.

The organization's most vocal critic, Bob WitbolsFeugen, questions whether it is living up to its mandate. He believes the office is too closely tied to the county executive's office and is working to protect the county from lawsuits, instead of independently investigating on behalf of citizens.

WitbolsFeugen asked legislators to conduct an independent review of the organization.

"Please renounce the agenda of those who desire your cooperation to cover up misconduct of individuals who only serve the appointing authority. Restore the faith of our citizens in Jackson County government and take these courageous steps toward more open government," WitbolsFeugen said.

The OHRCC commissioners and its director, Deborah Tircuit, deny such allegations. They believe the OHRCC has acted appropriately and independently. Tircuit and Commission Chairman Roger Davis said they welcome an overall review of the organization.

However, Tircuit and Davis don't want the review to specifically look at the Karen Turner complaint which WitbolsFeugen supported saying it is a closed issue.

The ombudsman, Duncan Fowler, will conduct an overall review of the OHRCC. Legislators removed the $5,000 provision from the resolution that would look at the Turner complaint. This made the contract worth $16,000.

Legislator Ron Finley, chairman of the Finance & Audit Committee, was the biggest supporter of removing the provision. Finley said he believes removing it will not harm the overall study. He said Fowler will still be able to study issues resulting from the Turner complaint, and it won't cost the county an additional $5,000. Finley said WitbolsFeugen and Turner will be called as witnesses for Fowler's investigation and can discuss the case at that time.

Tircuit and Davis were pleased by the decision, but WitbolsFeugen was disappointed. He said it was ridiculous to not review the only public hearing the OHRCC has ever held, because it shows how commissioners use the powers granted to them.

"I will remind you that the only time this commission chose to hold a hearing, it broke the law, and the only way it has avoided more violations is by refusing to hold any more hearings," WitbolsFeugen told legislators.

Turner complained to the OHRCC after a sheriff's deputy revealed to the suspect in a murder investigation, that Turner's daughter was an informant. Her daughter received death threats after that.

Turner complained that she specifically asked the deputy not to release her daughter's name.

The OHRCC investigated and eventually decided, in a closed hearing, there was no merit to Turner's complaint. Turner was not allowed to testify in this meeting, and the Commission never issued a subpoena for phone records which Turner says proved she asked the deputy to not release her daughter's name.

WitbolsFeugen's daughter, Anastasia, was the woman whose murder was being investigated.

He believes the OHRCC based its decision solely on advice from the County Counselor's office. He argues this was a conflict of interest, because it is in the interest of the County Counselor to avoid lawsuits against the county. He also argues this violated the County Charter, because the OHRCC is supposed to act independently of the County Executive's office, which the County Counselor is a part of.

Turner and WitbolsFeugen sued, claiming the closed meeting violated the Missouri Open Meetings law. The judge ruled the meeting was illegally closed, but Turner and WitbolsFeugen were left with $35,000 in legal fees.

For the last two years, WitbolsFeugen has pressed the Legislature to review the decision. This effort culminated with the Legislature's decision on Monday to conduct an overall review of the OHRCC.

To reach James Dornbrook e-mail jamesd@examiner.net or call 350-6322.
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