Louisiana, Mo., official considers city reprimand by attorney general's office a 'hand slap'

Posted: Feb. 1, 2013 11:26 pm Updated: Feb. 23, 2013 3:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

LOUISIANA Mo. -- The Missouri Attorney General's office has reprimanded members of the Louisiana City Council and City Attorney Robert Rapp for their actions involving the impeachment of a council member and their reaction to complaints filed by residents.

The Jan. 18 letter signed by Patricia Churchill, chief counsel for the Governmental Affairs Division, ordered Rapp and council members to attend training sessions on the Missouri Sunshine Law and provide the Attorney General's Office with copies of council meeting notices and minutes for the next six months.

Rapp and council members also were told to clarify for residents that the Attorney General's Office did not recommend that the city file suit against any citizen for filing complaints city officials deemed frivolous, and that any such suit by the city would "border on frivolous."

Nanci Gonder, press secretary for the Attorney General's Office, told The Herald-Whig that Louisiana officials have scheduled training on compliance with the Missouri Sunshine Law, but the office has received no other communication from the city.

City Administrator Bob Jenne, whose dispute with council member Robbyn Morris eventually led to her impeachment in November, said the council is scheduled to attend training on Feb. 13.

"I really don't consider (these requests) severe," Jenne said. "It's more like a hand slap."

The Pike County has been at the center of a political storm since Morris was charged with tape-recording a closed council session in September and later impeached.

The Attorney General's Office concluded that the Sept. 10 closed session -- called to discuss a real estate transaction and the "hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting" of a particular employee -- was unlawfully closed. Jenne called for a closed session to discuss how he believed Morris had tampered with his administrative duties while they were dealing with a sewage issue days earlier in Ward 3, which Morris represented. The Attorney General's Office concluded that should have been discussed in open session.

Morris said she recorded the session because she believed it was unlawfully closed. That was at the heart of her defense in her impeachment hearing, but the council voted 7-0 in November to remove her.

Then, at a Dec. 10 council meeting, Rapp allegedly threatened to sue anyone filing what he deemed to be "frivolous" Missouri Sunshine Law complaints with the Attorney General's Office.

The Attorney General's Office received 25 complaints and 85 inquiries involving the Louisiana City Council in October. Those numbers fell to 12 complaints and 66 inquiries in November, and again in December when nine complaints and 55 inquiries were made.

Another nine complaints were filed in January.

Rapp said addressing each complaint involves a considerable amount of time for his office and others, and he thought the state's law governing malicious prosecution should enable the city to recoup those costs if the complaints are found to be baseless and frivolous.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Grant Doty said Rapp's comment resembles a strategic lawsuit against public participation known as a "slapp suit." He said it is often employed to silence critics through the threat of paying legal costs, a way to potential sway individuals from speak out against government.

"We're really troubled that it's intended to discourage people from filing complaints," Doty said.

Jenne said that the media and community took Rapp's comments out of context, and the city never planned to sue residents.

Rapp did not return repeated phone messages from the Herald-Whig.