KANSAS CITY — Voters in Joplin, MO, the small Midwestern city still recovering from a 2011 tornado, went to the polls earlier this week, and a council member who’s been at the center of a local controversy won re-election to his seat.
But before that, The Joplin Globe scored a victory of a different sort: The paper secured a court order that upheld an expansive reading of the state’s Sunshine Law and forced the complete findings of a municipal investigation into public view before Election Day.
After obtaining the records—nine previously-withheld pages of the investigator’s report, plus hundreds of pages of testimony transcripts—on the Friday before the election, the paper turned out a series of stories based on the documents. Newsroom staffers also worked through the weekend to upload the entire packet of information to the paper’s website, so the local residents could access the information before the election. (Disclosure: I was a staff writer at the Globe from 2007 to 2011.)
The documents were not altered or even reviewed prior to upload, said Carol Stark, the Globe’s editor in chief, because the paper has “a responsibility to deliver it to the public the same way it was delivered to us.
“It gives them the ability to make their own informed decisions, which we think good government should be about,” she said.
A public controversy
The investigation that led to the report began last fall, following months of controversy involving mayor pro tem Bill Scearce, former mayor and current councilman Mike Woolston, who was up for re-election this week, and then-city manager Mark Rohr.
On Oct. 21, 2013, the city council hired Thomas Loraine, an outside attorney, to conduct a probe focused on three issues: Scearce’s connection to an FBI investigation into illegal bookmaking, Woolston’s business relationships with a local realtor and the master developer hired to help rebuild the city following the devastating 2011 tornado, and a handwritten note that Rohr alleged was taken off his desk without permission. The cost of the investigation was capped at $45,000, and the agreement stipulated that Loraine’s report “shall be an open record made available under Missouri’s Sunshine Laws.”
At some point, the investigation took a turn to focus on Rohr’s leadership style. And at a Feb. 4 meeting, a split council voted to fire Rohr.
Following the meeting, the council released a portion of Loraine’s report, which exonerated Scearce and recommended that Woolston, a realtor, either “divest his interests [in the tornado-damaged zone] or resign from the council.”
But the city withheld the portion of the report pertaining to Rohr, along with transcripts of testimony given to Loraine. Those transcripts included interviews with Woolston and other members of the council who were seeking reelection. They also shed light on ongoing politicking within the council—on August 2013, an earlier attempt to remove Rohr had failed by one vote.
It was the decision to withhold that material that the paper challenged, first through negotiation, and then, on Feb. 24, with a lawsuit.
Stark, the Globe’s top editor, said that finding out how the investigation turned from probing the activities of two council members to examining Rohr—and how the cost ended up ballooning to roughly $80,000—was a key question the paper hoped to answer.
“At no time did the council authorize it to go another way,” she said. In the shortened version of the report, “we don’t really get to the heart of those charges, a city manager gets fired and the taxpayers get stuck with a bill almost twice what they were expecting.”
‘Liberally construed’ versus ‘strictly construed’
While the paper wanted to uncover why the focus of the investigation had pivoted to Rohr, the city cited that very shift as its justification for withholding a portion of the report. While the contract stipulated that Loraine’s report would be a public record, said city attorney Brian Head, “it was not anticipated at the time the agreement was drafted that the investigation would include an investigation of the City Manager.”
“It was and continues to be the belief of this office that the portion of the report relating to Mr. Rohr was personnel in nature and should have remained confidential,” Head wrote in an email response to CJR.
Missouri’s Sunshine Law does have a “personnel exemption” among its 23 exceptions. A second exemption dealing with “individually identifiable personnel records” was cited by the city as justification to exempt the transcripts, testimonies, and supporting evidence.