The League of Women Voters is pressing the Columbia City Council to adopt a policy to protect civil liberties and the public’s right to know when the city forms partnerships or contracts with private entities.
Bertrice Bartlett, co-chair of the league’s Civil Liberties Committee, said the group’s intent is to prevent the city from working with private entities that would “contract away civil liberties or the citizens’ right to know.”
“One of the things going on all over the country is public entities contracting with private groups, who then claim that their information is proprietary and not for public information,” Bartlett said.
League member Linda Kaiser addressed the matter during public comment at the council’s Monday meeting. She cited three instances in which she felt private groups had compromised the public interest: a records request by Ken Midkiff, conservation chair for the Osage Group of the Sierra Club; the arrest of two protesters at the Salute to Veterans Air Show at Columbia Regional Airport in 2004, a case that ended in a Supreme Court victory for the protesters; and a 2006 attempt to stop the circulation of petitions at Art in the Park at Stephens Lake Park.
Each of the matters was eventually resolved, but Kaiser said the pattern indicates a need for a clear policy in the future.
“The League of Women Voters has been concerned that such events have occurred in our city,” Kaiser told the council in a prepared statement. “We feel strongly that the city should take the initiative in protecting its citizens.”
The league presented two sets of proposed language to the council. One says that the city “will not enter into contracts that compromise the citizens’ right to know or that impinge on the citizens’ civil liberties.” The other states that if the city contracts with private groups, it is “in no way delegating its responsibility to protect the public’s right to information or the public’s right to engage in expressions of free speech.”
The council unanimously approved a motion to review language for the ordinance proposed by the League of Women Voters.
Midkiff, who attended Monday’s council meeting to show support for the league, felt his “right to know” was hindered last year by Allstate Consultants, which did some design work on a planned extension of Vandiver Drive over Hinkson Creek. Allstate had proposed a realignment of the road that included an intrusion on the flood plain and the construction of a causeway on land owned by John Alspaugh.
Alspaugh, out of concern the city might be taking his land, brought the matter to Midkiff’s attention, and Midkiff went looking for records. Though he got some documents from the city, he was told that much of what he sought would have to be provided by Allstate.
“We asked for records from the city of Columbia, which we received,” Midkiff said. “But Allstate Consultants said it was going to cost us $900 for their documents.”
Both Midkiff and Jean Maneke, a legal consultant for the Missouri Press Association and an expert on the Missouri Sunshine Law, felt the company should have been allowed to charge only the cost of copying the documents because they are public records. Public records, as defined by the Sunshine Law, include reports, memorandums, surveys or documents prepared for a government body by a consultant or “other professional service paid for in whole or in part by public funds.”
City Attorney Fred Boeckmann, though, sided with Allstate.
“Allstate Consultants was willing to provide copies for him,” Boeckmann said, “but (Midkiff) was unwilling to pay.”
Midkiff said that a few days after his request for the documents, the city and Allstate decided that they would not build the causeway on Alpaugh’s land but instead make a roundabout on the west side of Hinkson Creek. After the city’s decision, Midkiff did not pursue the matter any further.
“My goal had been to protect the Hinkson Creek flood plain,” said Midkiff. “And when those goals had been met, I didn’t pursue the matter any further.”
The league also cited the arrests of Bill Wickersham and Maureen Doyle during the Salute to Veterans Air Show in 2004, where they distributed anti-war leaflets and a green-energy petition. A subsequent lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city and Salute to Veterans Corp. went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that protests should be allowed on public property outside the actual show.
Finally, the league cited a 2006 attempt by the Columbia Art League and a park security officer to stop Mark Haim from circulating a petition opposing a war with Iran. The director of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department later acknowledged the error and apologized to Haim.
“The issues that came up in 2006 were resolved because the rules and regulations in place were already fine,” Haim said.
Both Wickersham and Haim said they support the league in principle.
“What I understand the league is doing is to ensure that citizens within the airshow and those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights will be allowed to do so,” Wickersham said, “those rights being the right to leaflet, the right to wear expressive clothing and to be able to carry signs on the tarmac.”
Bartlett emphasized that, although the league cited those past events as examples of the problem, its goal is to look toward the future.
“Every one of these incidences was ultimately resolved,” Bartlett said. “We just thought a policy would help prevent such circumstances from arising in the future.”