A curious thing happened on the way to the clerk’s office on Tuesday morning. After the meeting of the Camden County Commission, Leslie Chamberlin of Citizens for a Better Camden County and local business owner Theresa Townsend stepped across the hall to the Camden County Clerk’s office.
A week prior, Theresa Townsend had called Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd’s office. At that time, she had requested access to the billing file of county attorney, Charles McElyea, for the calender year 2013. She was told by the office that she was welcome to view the file, but it was currently in use as part of an audit. When the file was returned, the office assured her, she would be able to view it. Theresa thanked them and made arrangements to see these documents on Tuesday morning, following a meeting of the Camden County Commission.
It was during this meeting that Franken asserted he had replied to Ms. Townsend’s questions regarding her treatment by county Planning and Zoning. That assertion is not backed up however, as the response from candidate for Presiding Commissioner Kris Franken, clearly demonstrates.
When Leslie and Theresa entered the clerk’s office, they were expected. The file she had requested to view had been pulled, its contents provided to her. She and Leslie reviewed a sampling of documents and photographed dozens of invoices and billing statements.
Approximately thirty minutes to forty-five minutes later, the Sunshine Law, the Missouri State Constitution and US Constitution were suspended in the Camden County Courthouse.
Charles McElyea, a partner with the firm of Phillips, McElyea, Carpenter and Welch, as well as attorney for Camden County, decreed Sunshine Law was suspended.
What happened next is shocking.
As Theresa and Leslie were wrapping up their document review, Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd frantically snatched up the billing file, bellowing threats. These threats were coming directly from Charles McElyea, according to Todd.
The Camden County Clerk communicated to Leslie and Theresa in terms that were quite certain, that if they made billing documents and invoices from his office public, Charlie McElyea would sue them.
When Theresa and Leslie entered the office of the clerk, Theresa filled out the proper forms regarding her request to see these records. She had made her intention known a week in advance. There was no misunderstanding what she was there to see. The staff of the clerk’s office had the file, and area to review it, ready for Leslie and Theresa when they arrived. The billing invoices were approved for payment by the Camden County Commission, making them available for public viewing under the Sunshine Law.
Nor did this episode of the Twilight Zone did not end there. Under a hail of threats, Leslie and Theresa left the Camden County Courthouse with scores of photographs of these billing statements. Later that afternoon, Charlie Mac called Leslie.
His phone call was prompted by the following post on the Guerrilla Radio with American Spring Facebook page:
Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd, by denying access to public records subject to Sunshine Law on the advice of county attorney Charles McElyea, appears to have committed a misdemeanor offense.
More to come…
Charlie Mac attempted to explain to Leslie how he was justified, legally, to single-handedly rewrite the Sunshine Law. He offered her his interpretations of statutes and cited attorney/client privilege as reasons the documents shouldn’t be released to the public. He tried to explain how he could claim authority to suspend the Sunshine Law. Unfortunately for Camden County, its Commission and the tax payers, attorney Charles McElyea seems to be giving questionable legal advice. In his rush to suspend the rule of law and his attempts to scramble to bully, cajole and plead to keep these billing statements secret, he overlooked a critical statute.
Missouri Revised Statutes, Chapter 109 Public and Business Records, Section 109.180, is one of those pesky little statutes, whose intent is to make sure that no one, under any legal interpretation, can prohibit the viewing of public documents subject to an approved Sunshine request. It is quite specific about that. In fact, it is so specific that it comes with a very specific ‘slap-on-the-wrist’ reminder that no one can suspend, rewrite or reinterpret the Sunshine Law itself.
That would include Charlie Mac, despite his reasoning to the contrary.
109.180. Except as otherwise provided by law, all state, county and municipal records kept pursuant to statute or ordinance shall at all reasonable times be open for a personal inspection by any citizen of Missouri, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse the privilege to any citizen. Any official who violates the provisions of this section shall be subject to removal or impeachment and in addition shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or by confinement in the county jail not exceeding ninety days, or by both the fine and the confinement.
The last section does not appear to include an exception for Charles McElyea, Rowland Todd or Camden County. It appears to be quite specific. The last sentence is worth repeating:
Any official who violates the provisions of this section shall be subject to removal or impeachment and in addition shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one hundred dollars, or by confinement in the county jail not exceeding ninety days, or by both the fine and the confinement.
It is punishment for those who would assume to block the public from records they are entitled to have access to. This includes both Rowland and Charlie Mac.
Whether the reason for this incredible overreaching claim of authority is the fact that Charlie Mac doesn’t want the people of tax payers to know he charges $82.50 to open an email or simple audacity is not relevant according to the statute above. It clearly identifies the consequences for violating it.
Charlie Mac, despite his assertions to the contrary, is not exempt from it. Neither is Camden County Clerk Rowland Todd.
Attempting in the eleventh hour, to hide his billing records, indicates a desperation worthy of risking the prescribed remedy for his actions.
What would Charlie Mac be so willing to go to jail for? Why would Rowland Todd be willing to go with him?
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