Kansas City police board tried to meet behind the mayor’s back

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The Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners tried to improperly exclude one of its own members from taking part in a critical meeting in May.

The member on the outside, looking in? Mayor Quinton Lucas, the only person on the board who represents actual voters.

The attempt to keep Lucas from participating in a meeting about police funding should concern everyone in Kansas City who cares about transparency and taxpayer money.

It should also concern Lucas. But despite repeated attempts, Lucas did not respond to a request for an on-the-record comment on this story by mid-afternoon Monday. That will frustrate Kansas Citians who think the mayor should be a bit more open about an attempt to close the door in his face — and by extension, in ours.

Here’s what happened.

Someone on the police board called a closed meeting for May 24, four days after the Kansas City Council passed two ordinances shifting $42 million in police spending to a new city fund. The board was furious about the decision, first proposed by Lucas.

That morning, a police board assistant sent an email with “call-in information” for the closed session. The email, obtained by the Star through a Sunshine Law request, included a dial-in number and passcode for members calling into the meeting.

The email was sent to David Kenner, the board’s attorney, and four members of the board itself: Bishop Mark Tolbert, Cathy Dean, Don Wagner and Nathan Garrett, who was on the board at the time.

It was not sent to Lucas.

Without the phone number and code, he could not call in to be a part of the closed session. Someone had apparently decided the mayor should not be a part of the discussion.

We asked the department to explain the legal basis for excluding Lucas, a voting police board member, from the session. We didn’t get a clear answer. The department did not claim a clerical error, either, or an honest mistake.

It refused to provide documents that might explain the decision, citing attorney-client privilege.

“The Board notices for open and closed meetings go to all commissioners and the Mayor,” said an email from department spokesman Sgt. Jacob Becchina. “This notice is posted on our website.”

But the notice wouldn’t have helped Mayor Lucas. It said the meeting would be held by teleconference. The only way any member of the board could have participated was through use of the dial-in number and passcode, or by going to Police Chief Rick Smith’s office.

Lucas wasn’t given any of this information that morning.

In fact, the notice for the May 24 session appears to itself have violated the Missouri Sunshine Law. The law requires a public body contemplating a closed session to provide a detailed reason for doing so.

The notice lacked that explanation. “This meeting will be a closed session and will not be open to members of the public due to the discussion of items appropriate for closed session,” the notice said.

It’s a circular statement (or, more accurately, jibberish.) It isn’t enough under the Missouri Sunshine Law.

All of this is incredibly juvenile behavior. (Hey, nobody tell him the rest of us are getting together!)

Won’t disclose cost of lawsuit against city

And in the end, it didn’t work. Lucas was eventually able to take part in the May 24 closed session. Someone apparently figured out that state law required the board to meet in public first, in its customary meeting room, before voting for a closed meeting.

Lucas attended that brief open session, and stayed for the closed meeting that followed. He argued against a costly lawsuit, but lost.

How costly? We’re trying to find that out, too.

You see, there was a sixth person on the email list on May 24. It was Patrick McInerney, a private attorney now leading the board’s case against the city and the $42 million in redirected spending.

We don’t know why McInerney was invited to a closed session of the police board on May 20, when the lawsuit against the city wasn’t filed until May 28. We also don’t know when McInerney or his law firm were hired to represent the police board.

We asked for a copy of the contract, but were told details of any agreement are protected by the attorney-client privilege. We asked for the department’s legal costs to date. The city says its legal costs for outside counsel in the case are now capped at $25,000; the police board is mute.

The public has an absolute right to know how much this will cost.

These are not isolated quibbles. The police board is not free to decide which laws it will follow and which it will ignore. Mayor Lucas has more reason than any other member to take part in its discussions: He was elected. His board colleagues were not.

Unfortunately, Lucas has been missing in action as this story has unfolded. His office is aware of the email. Again, we asked repeatedly for a reaction.

For whatever reason, the mayor seems too worried about offending the police board that tried to exclude him from a meeting to say anything.

The police board cannot expect to ask citizens to follow the laws if it disregards laws it doesn’t like. Its members should apologize, in public, to Mayor Lucas, for the attempt to bar him from a closed meeting. It should then disclose any contracts for outside legal help, and the funds spent do date.

Otherwise, the public’s fading faith in the state-controlled board will continue to dwindle.

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