A relatively quiet and quick-moving University City City Council meeting Monday came to a screeching halt as council members, the mayor, the city attorney and members of the audience debated whether Mayor Shelley Welsch violated Missouri's Sunshine Law in her University City Bulletin Board email Sunday night.
In the weekly email news blast, the Mayor included information from City Attorney Paul Martin regarding a vote held at the last council meeting as well as the full text of Martin's legal opinion on the University City/Olivette intergovernmental meeting.
Councilwoman Paulette Carr, Ward 2, brought the issue up during council comments, which follow the majority of the council agenda.
Carr said she was "shocked and dismayed" to see the information in her inbox at 6:02 p.m. Sunday.
"This is a confidential document," she said. "It was reprinted in a newsletter."
Carr noted the PDF file of the memo, which was attached to the email, reads:
"It is the opinion of the author that this document constitutes a privileged communication between a governmental body and its attorney and may be maintained as a closed record in accord with the provisions of Section 610.021(1) RSMo. 2010."
"At no time did the council discuss releasing these documents as public and yet confidential documents were put out in the public domain," Carr said.
Councilman Terry Crow, Ward 1, asked Martin if the City of University City had adopted the Missouri Sunshine Laws and its open records provisions. He then asked Martin to confirm that under the law, privileged communication between the city and its attorney could only be opened by a vote of the city's council.
When questioned by Crow, an attorney himself, Martin said that the release of the document via an email newsletter to residents did 'open' the records, making them part of the public domain.
The intergovernmental agreement memo is attached to this story.
Councilman Stephen Kraft, Ward 1, noted that much of the information in Martin's opinion was brought up in a public Council meeting on the intergovernmental agreement. He added that this wasn't a personnel issue and the information was not part of a lawsuite against the city.
"Is there anything in here that you would advise us to keep quiet?" he asked Martin.
Crow noted the Council set a precendent in November when it voted to open Martin's opinion on public/private streets in order to clear up misconceptions in the public.
Councilman Byron Price repeatedly asked Mayor Welsch what her intent was when she released the information to the public. He asked her to explain the release of information.
Welsch said repeatedly she would be happy to meet with Price to discuss the issue but she would not do it during Monday's meeting.
"I'm perplexed as to where there is a better forum," Crow told the Mayor.
Price suggested that the information on the so-called illegal resolution of Jan. 30 might be defamatory to the School District of University City.
At that meeting, the City Council approved a resolution to support the District's Prop U bond issue, which is on the April 2 ballot. The vote on the measure was 4-1-1. Councilmembers Arthur Sharpe Jr., Price, Carr and Crow voted in favor of the resolution. Councilman Michael Glickert voted against and Mayor Welsch abstained. Councilman Kraft was not at the meeting.
According to Welsch's email, a resident questioned the legality of the resolution after the meeting. Martin's opinion on the vote was included in the email blast and reads as follows:
Section 115.646, however, provides as follows:
No contribution or expenditure of public funds shall be made directly by any officer, employee or agent of any political subdivision to advocate, support, or oppose any ballot measure or candidate for public office. This section shall not be construed to prohibit any public official of a political subdivision from making public appearances or from issuing press releases concerning any such ballot measure.
Preparing and submitting a resolution supporting a ballot proposition, even one germane to another jurisdiction, involves the use of public resources, and very likely constitutes an expenditure of public funds to advocate a ballot measure. The city's resolution probably violates this statute, but please note that the statute does not prohibit any public officials from personal advocacy. The prohibition only extends to the use of public funds to do so.
Welsch's email states that Martin has recommended the Council refrain from future resolutions supporting ballot measures, whether they be the city's or another taxing entity.
Carr noted that the resolution for the schools was drawn up by Councilman Price and not by city staff. City Manager Lehman Walker estimated that City Clerk Joyce Pumm spent roughly an hour cleaning up language. He put the cost to the city at $27.
Resident and candidate for School Board Edward McCarthy told the board that under Sunshine Law the opinion may be confidential but didn't have to be. He said the bigger issue was vote on the bond issue.
"The four of you that voted for the resolution—you broke the law," he said. "That's your lawyer's opinion. You have to ring the bell because you are still in violation of the law and it's out in the open."
Carr countered that the release of the documents was a violation of the Open Records statute.
Gregory Pace told the Council he felt he "brought a pea-shooter to a gun fight."
"This discussion has gone on for several minutes," he said. "Shame on you for not putting it on the agenda so I could do my research before coming to the meeting."
No action was taken in open session on the document release or the resolution from Jan. 30. The Council adjourned to an executive session at 8:06 p.m. to discuss the issue.
University City Patch will have more information as it becomes available.