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Category Archives: county government

Missouri’s Sunshine Law overrides confidentiality clause in settlement agreement and advice of counsel

On advice of its attorney, the Robinwood South Community Improvement District refused to provide a copy of a settlement agreement to John P. Strake, a member of the public who requested it.  Strake sued and filed a motion for summary judgment, stating that there was no fact question regarding whether the settlement agreement (relating to a personal injury suit) was a public record; Strake also wanted the imposition of a civil penalty and the recovery of his costs and attorney fees.

On November 10, 2015, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court in Strake v Robinwood West Community Improvement District held that the District’s reliance on its attorney’s advice to not disclose the settlement agreement did not shield the District from being held liable for knowing and purposeful violations of the Sunshine Law.

The trial judge in St. Louis County ordered the District to provide a copy of the settlement agreement. But the trial judge also entered a judgment in favor of the District, denying the civil penalty, attorney fees and costs that were sought by Strake for the District’s knowing and purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law. The trial judge’s order did not explain why exactly she declined to impose the penalty and award costs and attorney fees, noting only that the District “was relying on the advice of counsel to avoid a lawsuit for breach of contract.”

When a city or other unit of local government enters into a settlement agreement to end a lawsuit,  officials often don’t want to encourage additional claims by disclosing how much was paid to make the plaintiff go away. Most settlement agreements contain a confidentiality clause, which may contain penalties for disclosure of the settlement terms, unless ordered by a court before the settlement is final.

Private corporations are no different, but governmental bodies in Missouri have to follow the Sunshine Law, which is Missouri’s body of statutes that require disclosure of most kinds of public records, as well as requiring that meetings of governmental business be conducted in public meetings. Some kinds of governmental records may properly be closed for a time–such as the details of negotiations to buy or sell real estate or terms of proposed settlement offers in litigation–but these records must eventually become public, unless a court determines that they should remain closed. The Sunshine Law specifies very limited grounds for keeping settlement agreements closed, not allowing courts to conceal the amounts paid by or to the governmental body.

A governmental body that knowingly violates the Sunshine Law may be penalized up to $1,000, plus paying the court costs and attorney fees of the party requesting the records. The penalty is up to $5,000 if the governmental body purposely violates the Sunshine Law, which requires proof that the governmental body had “a conscious design, intent or plan” to violate the law “with awareness of the probable consequences.” The District’s attorney had advised the District that “the most prudent course” was to refuse the request to produce the settlement agreement, while pointing out the statute that required the disclosure of the settlement agreement, apparently fearing that the consequences of breaching the confidentiality clause might be more serious than the consequences of violating the Sunshine Law.

The District’s attorney’s advice provided a basis for the Supreme Court to conclude that the District had actual knowledge of its obligations under the Sunshine Law to give the settlement agreement to Strake and the consequences of not doing so, such that its decision to withhold the settlement agreement was a purposeful violation.

The American Civil Liberties Union provided legal counsel to Strake. Those who criticize the ACLU for many of its activities should recognize that the ACLU’s action in this case was non-partisan and strongly in support in openness in government. The Missouri Press Association also participated in the appeal.



Chasing manufacturing jobs? Good luck.

Every civic-minded American believes that prosperity is simply a matter of a factory coming to his town. Not one one that belches pollution, but “light industry” or “clean manufacturing.”

While a few such factories exist and a new one will come to the Ozarks once in a while, I’m doubtful that a policy directed at reeling in these factories should be a major part of an economic development strategy.

In his very brief essay, “Fetish for making things ignore real work,” John Kay breaks down the purchase price of an iPhone, which (ignoring the carrier subsidy, or what Verizon or ATT discounts it to you to get you to sign a contract) is about $700. He says the valuable parts–the camera and flash drive, not likely to be made by Ozarks labor–account for about $200. The assembly and the cheap parts amount to about $20. Most of the rest of the purchase price is returned to those brilliant people who designed the iPhone, its operating system, and its advertising and their shareholders.

Kay’s main argument is relevant to the local economic development director and chamber of commerce committee:

Where will the jobs come from in a service-based economy, manufacturing fetishists ask?

From doing here the things that cannot be done better elsewhere, either because of the particularity of the skills they require, or because these activities can only be performed close to home.

Manufacturing was once a principal source of low-skilled employment but this can no longer be true in advanced economies.

Most unskilled jobs in developed countries are necessarily in personal services. Workers in China can assemble your iPhone but they cannot serve you lunch, collect your refuse or bathe your grandmother.

If you’re wondering where in the USA the good technical jobs are, and which regions are experiencing growth, check out “The emerging technical, professional and scientific sector” by Rob Sentz. Missouri and Arkansas are losers, though the Kansas City area has significant growth.

If we want to have good jobs in the Ozarks, we have to invest our own money and energy. A big and difficult part of this challenge lies in raising expectations of our children, our schools, our civic and business organizations and our elected officials.

Otherwise, the best that many of our children can hope for is a job serving lunches, collecting refuse and bathing their elderly parents and grandparents.

Taxpayers vs. Ratepayers: Taxpayers lose

St. Charles County wanted to widen a road, which required moving the gas line within the right-of-way of Pittman Hill Road. Pittman Hill Road was created by subdivision plats which designated the road’s right-of-way as a utility easement for gas lines (among other utilities), dedicating the entire right-of-way to the public. 

The County asked Laclede Gas Company to pay for the relocation of its gas lines to the right-of-way of the reconstructed road. Laclede claimed that this amounted to an unconstitutional taking of its property. On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court ruled for the County, requiring Laclede Gas to pay for the relocation. Laclede appealed directly to the Missouri Supreme Court.

On appeal, the County made four objections: Read the rest of this entry

If the plat complies with the regulations, approval is mandatory

Real estate developers (remember them?) sometimes feel as though they’ve been pulled through a knothole backwards by the time they get a proposed subdivision plat to the stage at which it can be submitted to the local government for approval. According to several Missouri appellate opinions, if a proposed plat complies with the subdivision regulations, the local government has no choice but to approve it.

But reality is different, as shown by Alexander & Lindsey v. Platte County, an opinion issued last week by the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri. The court reversed the trial court’s refusal to order that the Platte County Commission approve Alexander & Lindsey’s preliminary subdivision plat. But the appellate court noted that the county government would have additional opportunities to coerce Alexander & Lindsey into making more concessions if it attempted to go beyond the preliminary plat to the submittal of a final plat.

“Preliminary plats” are not mentioned in Missouri’s statutes that authorize counties to adopt and administer subdivision regulations. But the two-stage plat approval process is valuable for developers and planning and zoning boards. The preliminary plat approval process is often the means of obtaining approval for an entire project to be constructed in phases. Once the preliminary plat is approved, the developer can proceed with some confidence that final plats of each phase of the project will be approved when submitted. The preliminary plat approval process, sometimes done in conjunction with a rezoning application, introduces the proposed project to the public and the scrutiny of neighbors and a variety of government agencies.

During the preliminary plat approval process, the developer learns that the subdivision regulations, as written, do not represent the full scope of requirements. Often the government’s preferences for stormwater control, traffic signals, intersection improvements and other expensive issues are not expressed in the regulations. The preliminary plat application doesn’t seem to move forward, until the developer has agreed to install infrastructure that is beyond the requirements of the regulations.

When Alexander & Lindsey submitted a preliminary plat for a commercial subdivision with five lots ranging in size from 2 to 4.6 acres. Alexander & Lindsey completed a traffic study and a drainage study, which were approved by the county’s engineer and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT).  The Platte County planning and zoning director found that it complied with the county regulations and recommended that the P&Z board approve it.

When the preliminary plat hearing took place before the P&Z board, several persons expressed concerns. Expressing “concerns” are a common manner of objecting to a project for reasons that are not based on regulations. A public water supply district represented that it could supply drinking water, but not in adequate volume or pressure for fire-suppression. An alderman from the nearby town of Weston was concerned that the project’s building setback line was only 75 feet, rather than 100 feet, as required by Weston’s ordinance; Weston had previously rejected the developer’s annexation petition. MODOT’s engineer stated that MODOT regulations did not require the elimination of a driveway, as suggested by a P&Z board member.

Even though the proposed preliminary plat fully complied with all regulations, the P&Z board voted it down. The developer appealed to the Platte County Commission, which was not bound to follow the P&Z board’s recommendation. The Commission upheld the P&Z board’s denial, citing four reasons:

  • lack of specification of proposed uses
  • lack of water for fire suppression and lack of sewer facilities
  • potential impact of possible sewer lagoons on neighboring properties and the public
  • potential for traffic hazards from the existence two driveways

The appellate court noted that these four objections were outside the scope of the county’s subdivision regulations. Therefore, the county’s refusal to deny the preliminary plat was arbitrary, and the trial court was instructed to order the Commission to approve the preliminary plat.

Glaize Creek Sewer District blows condemnation case, but gets new chance

At a condemnation trial, Glaize Creek Sewer District (in Jefferson County, Missouri, just south of St. Louis), didn’t put on any admissible evidence of damages to the Gorhams’ property. The Gorhams put on proper evidence of damages, showing that the value of their property after the sewer line was installed declined by $29,000. The Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the jury verdict of zero damages (based on an appraiser‘s unsubstantiated opinion testimony), and sent the case back for a new trial.

Two things are unusual about this case: Read the rest of this entry

Judge corrected for merging both Carroll County judicial districts

Eureka Springs and Berryville, both towns in Carroll County, Arkansas, are just eight miles apart, separated by the valley of the Kings River. The Arkansas legislature in 1883 created a judicial district for the county west of the Kings River and the another judicial district on the east side of the river.

But in 2010, for reasons not explained in the Arkansas Supreme Court’s opinion, Parker v. Crow, Eastern District Judge Gerald Crow ruled that henceforth there would be only one judicial district in Carroll County.

Eureka Springs, west of the Kings River, is a tourist town and art colony, known for its Victorian architecture, with bathhouses, galleries and restaurants in a setting of steep hills and narrow streets, all maintained with strict building controls.
Berryville sits on a stretch of prairie east of the Kings River, surrounding by rolling hills and cattle and poultry farms. A Tysons poultry processing plant and a Walmart Supercenter are among the town’s largest employers.

In 1869, as northern Arkansas began to recover from the ravages of the Civil War, Boone County was created from the eastern portion of Carroll County, with Harrison as the county seat. Carrollton, a settlement 20 miles southeast of Berryville, was no longer at the center of Carroll County, and Berryville’s boosters succeeded in having the county seat established in Berryville in 1875.

In 1883, the Eureka Springs Railway was extended south from Missouri, and Eureka Springs quickly blossomed into a small city of hotels (quaint and magnificent) and bathhouses, fed by the waters of dozens of springs. The same year, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 74, creating two judicial districts for Carroll County.

Judge Crow’s bold attempt to merge the two districts probably left the Arkansas Supreme Court dumbfounded, but the opinion restoring the two districts simply cites some basic principles of American government to indicate the degree that Judge Crow’s opinion was off-base.

Judge Crow’s first contention was that the 1883 act of the legislature creating the two districts was unconstitutional because it attempted to create a new county, even though the language of the statute specified that the districts were to keep separate records as though they were in different counties, but that Carroll County should in all other respects “be one entire and undivided county.”

Judge Crow also determined that at 1997 legislative act, among other laws, repealed the 1883 act by implication. The Arkansas Supreme Court recited the rule that repeal by implication “is never allowed except where there is such an invincible repugnancy” that the old and new laws “cannot both stand together.” The 1997 law, and the others, may be messy and partially inconsistent, but they did not specifically repeal the 1883 act.

Almost as an afterthought, the Arkansas Supreme Court examined the Arkansas constitution, noting that the power to establish or dissolve judicial districts was a legislative power, not something that a judge could do.  Quashing Judge Crow’s attempt to merge the two judicial districts, the Supreme Court said that his order “shows a plain, manifest, clear and gross abuse of discretion.”

Table Rock Lake and the cost of economic activity

Posted on

Kathleen O’Dell’s article about the economic impact of Table Rock Lake in today’s Springfield News-Leader, entitled “Table Rock Dam Gives Much Back to Area,” covers a lot of ground in describing the various kinds of economic activities that are related to the construction and continued existence of Table Rock Lake.

In an economic sense, is the Table Rock Lake area fit (efficient and nimble) or obese (expensive to maintain and subject to falls)? As pointed out below, the two counties most affected by Table Rock Lake have experienced the area’s lowest growth in Read the rest of this entry


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