The Commission's attorney denied any Sunshine Law violations, and no further investigation into the complaints is being pursued by the attorney general.
One of the Camden County Commission’s attorneys has responded to the two Sunshine Law complaints filed by Camden County citizens, and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office has closed the cases.
On June 22, attorney Matthew J. Growcock of Lowther Johnson responded on behalf of the Camden County Commission to complaints filed by Marshall Peterson and Theresa Townsend with the AG’s office this spring. Growcock denied any Sunshine Law violations, and no further investigation into the complaints is being pursued by the attorney general.
The letter from the AG’s office requesting a response to the complaints was issued May 19, 2017, to the commission’s general legal counsel, Charles McElyea of Phillips, McElyea, Carpenter & Welch in Camdenton.
The commission engaged Lowther Johnson as a special Sunshine Law attorney on March 28, 2017.
On April 28, Peterson filed a Sunshine Law complaint with the AG’s office over the hiring of the law firm.
The complaint, submitted through an online form, stated in part, “610.023.1 says that you have to identify a custodian of the public records. This person is responsible for the maintenance of those records. 610.023.2 specifically precludes an outside business from being the custodian. I’m sure it would be fine if your designated custodian calls a lawyer to help with the sunshine law request’s legality, but that’s probably all they could do.”
As supporting evidence, Peterson included the last page of the letter of engagement between the commission and Lowther Johnson. It states, in part, “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: 1. That said LOWTHER JOHNSON LAW FIRM respond to ALL SUNSHINE REQUESTS for access to or copies of a public record within the time period provided by statute except in those circumstances authorized by statute.”
According to Growcock’s response, it was believed that Peterson “misunderstood” the resolution.
“The resolution does not designate my law firm as custodian of records for any of the public offices within Camden County. Rather, the resolution simply engages my firm to ‘respond to all Sunshine requests for access to or copies of the public record…’ The resolution in no way designates my firm as custodian of records,” stated the letter from Growcock.
Since Lowther Johnson was hired by the Camden County Commission, Growcock said they have not accepted any records requests under the Sunshine Law.
It should be noted that individual county office-holders must now accept records requests for documents related to their department and then can consult with Lowther Johnson which responds on behalf of the office. Previously, the legal custodian of records for the commission - the county clerk’s office - acted in this capacity, accepting and fulfilling all records requests for the offices in the administrative courthouse.
While the clerk’s office is technically the physical holder of commission records, they have been removed by the commission as the minute-taker for commission meetings after a dispute between the two offices that led to a lawsuit which is ongoing.
The commission has also been sealing closed session minutes which the clerk’s office is not allowed to open even to review for possible release when a Sunshine request for actions made during the closed session has been made. Instead, the commission’s attorney from Lowther Johnson determines what will be released.
In the complaint filed by Townsend, she stated “After disputing policy & procedure of Planning & Zoning, I have five times requested the name, date appointed, and contact information for the Camden County Commission Custodian of Record. I have yet to receive an answer and I fear the reason is to allow time to manufacture things which do not exist and to figure out how to explain how they came to an agreement without meeting or vote ... They HAVE seen my requests as Mr. Hasty has responded to SEVERAL e-mails that contain these numerous requests.”
In supporting documentation, Townsend provided multiple e-mails. In the last provided dated April 29, she stated that she had asked four times about the custodian of record as well as how much they had paid for attorney opinions on her case and copies of those opinions, believing the commission was not being honest about receiving a legal opinion on it.
She also asked how the commission, per one of Hasty’s prior e-mails, had all agreed that her project was an accessory structure as they had never met as a commission to discuss or vote on the matter.
After Townsend’s complaint was filed, more e-mail exchanges occurred. Growcock did eventually e-mail Townsend that the custodian of records was still the county clerk’s office.
In an e-mail May 16, on which the Lake Sun was copied, he told Townsend he had previously told her that but had assumed she knew who the clerk was and how to contact him. He apologized for the assumption and provided the information.
According to Growcock’s response to the attorney general, Townsend was notified via a May 11 email that the county clerk is the custodian of records for the commission. On May 15, Townsend emailed Growcock again stating she had yet to receive contact information and date appointed for the custodian of records.
He confirmed responding to Townsend on May 16 with the name of the clerk and his address. He also informed her that there was date of appointment because the clerk remained the custodian of records pursuit to state statute.
In his response, Growcock also noted, “although Section 610.023.1 provides that the identity and location of a public governmental body custodian is to be made available upon request, there is no time frame or deadline set forth in the statue [sic] for providing the information.”
Growcock also provided emails supporting the dialogue between Townsend and him.