Clerical Error

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The position of city clerk is not merely clerical. The city clerk is the custodian of records, responsible for the city’s compliance with the state’s Sunshine Law. She is responsible for assembling and distributing bills and other materials to the council and public in connection with all public and closed meetings of the city. She is responsible for the process of awarding and renewing liquor licenses. And she is supposed to ensure that nominees for boards and commissions are eligible before presenting them to council for approval. This is a substantial set of responsibilities, for which our city clerk, Octavia Pittman is amply paid: Our current budget indicates salary of nearly $90,000, with an increase to nearly $96,000 next year. Add the cost of benefits, and Ferguson will spend well in excess of $100,000 on our city clerk.

Unfortunately, the quality of Pittman’s work does not reflect what we might expect from such a highly compensated employee. While council meetings normally run smoothly, there are substantial ongoing and sporadic problems. Liquor license renewals have failed to comply with ordinances. Ineligible people have been presented for appointment to boards and commissions. And then, there’s the Sunshine problems.

One of the most serious failures: Earlier this year, a resident applied to receive a home through the city’s Property Restoration Program. The house was, in fact, not eligible for the program. The city did not own it, and it was not sufficiently tax delinquent for the city to obtain it. Pittman posted a packet of information which included the applicant’s social security card, driver’s license, bank statements, and tax return on the city’s public website. It remained there until a resident noticed it and reported it to the city manager. Of course, the most serious problem is the public posting of this information, which has legal implications for the city. But in fact, those who handle personal identifiable information (PII) are supposed to have procedures to ensure that it is handled properly. Even the distribution of unredacted PII to council members and staff is unnecessary and inappropriate.

Even worse, in July, a resident who was perusing Sunshine requests came across one in which a police report about a violent crime had been requested. In satisfying that request, Pittmann posted an unredacted copy of the police report. This report included name, home address, and social security number for all witnesses of the crime. This document also remained publicly available until a resident noticed the error and reported it to the city manager. Aside from identity theft, this error left witnesses open to intimidation or retaliation.

Unfortunately, Pittmann also does not publicly post most of the documents provided through Sunshine requests, despite the ability of the portal to effortlessly do so. That means those who are interested in a particular item would have to Sunshine and pay for it again, rather than allowing the public benefit of browsing through these public documents. And it also means that there could have been many more privacy violations that went unseen.

Regarding liquor licenses, our city code requires that applicants for new liquor licenses and renewals “Shall present with the application a receipt showing no property taxes are due for the premises to be licensed, regardless of whether the person owns the premises.” The real estate taxes on the Ferguson BP station on Florissant Road were, until we pointed it out, two years delinquent. They caught it up in early November, months after their license was renewed, paying about $32,000. As we write this article, the USA Market on Chambers remains two years delinquent, also about $32,000. Neither of those licenses should have been renewed, and clearly, the requirements of our liquor license ordinance were not being enforced.

Board and commission appointments are also a problem. Those who follow city government know that we have a great many unfilled seats, and council has even considered eliminating some boards and commissions because they are unable to get people to sign up. So it is concerning that applications, which are filed with the city clerk, often languish for months before being presented to the council. On numerous occasions, council members have complained in meetings that applications which they obtained were not vetted and distributed to the council. The process of vetting an application is simple: verify that the applicant meets the qualifications, which in most cases is simply that they are a city resident, and that their taxes are current. Tax status can be easily found through a county website. In recent memory, several applications were presented from applicants whose taxes were delinquent, resulting in embarrassment for the applicant. And in one case, an application was presented from somebody whose address indicated they were residents of Normandy, not Ferguson.

Sunshine law compliance is one of the most visible and important responsibilities of the city clerk. And this is an area where the city is consistently failing. First, the law requires posting minutes of closed session meetings, and the disclosure of closed session votes and other outcomes in some situations. Until we raised the issue recently, the city did not post closed session minutes at all. They have started, though not all were posted in the timeframe required by law. And we are certain they are incomplete. For example, minutes indicate a unanimous vote to offer a contract to John Hampton for city manager. But as we disclosed in August, after being tipped by a source outside of city government, council was considering another candidate, Lataunia Kenner. She interviewed with council, and a vote was taken, but there are no minutes which include that vote.

More seriously, we placed a Sunshine request for closed session minutes for the remainder of 2023. The request was placed on October 28, and third business day would be November 1. Since minutes should have already been prepared, satisfying this request in the required timeframe should have been easy. But as is common practice, the clerk granted herself an extension. On November 7, we were notified that obtaining minutes, which should have been posted to the city website and available to everyone at no charge, would require a payment of $39.25. Does the city seriously believe they can charge for minutes which they are required by law to provide? What’s next, charging admission to those wanting to attend council meetings?

Sunshine law also requires posting an agenda not less than 24 hours in advance of all meetings. In an analysis by The Observer of 2023 meeting notices, we found that two were held with less than 24 hours notice, on May 31 and August 23. The August meeting was a special closed meeting for personnel matters, yet no minutes were published within the 72 hour timeframe. The May 31 meeting was a special closed meeting for legal matters, for which minutes have also not been published. It is worth noting, because Ferguson has been the target of a great many lawsuits, that the final outcome of these lawsuits is normally supposed to be made public:

“Any minutes, vote or settlement agreement relating to legal actions, causes of action or litigation involving a public governmental body or any agent or entity representing its interests or acting on its behalf or with its authority, including any insurance company acting on behalf of a public government body as its insured, shall be made public upon final disposition of the matter voted upon or upon the signing by the parties of the settlement agreement, unless, prior to final disposition, the settlement agreement is ordered closed by a court after a written finding that the adverse impact to a plaintiff or plaintiffs to the action clearly outweighs the public policy considerations of section 610.011, however, the amount of any moneys paid by, or on behalf of, the public governmental body shall be disclosed.” (RSMO 610.021)

We do not recall the publishing of such information, and have no way of knowing what has come of these lawsuits. We know there are some members of council who prefer to do the public’s business behind closed doors. We have been consistent in our view that transparency ought to be the norm, and that important decisions, such as the hiring of a city manager, should not be made outside of the public view. To be clear, the laws governing closed meetings do not require them, they merely allow them. But our council chooses to close every meeting that they are permitted to close, without regard for whether such secrecy is needed in that particular circumstance. Given this penchant for secrecy, it is all the more vital that our city clerk comply with every point of the Sunshine law at all times, ensuring that the protections for the public against abuse of closed meetings are always applied. Her failure to do so is all the more harmful.

Finally, one quick point of interest to The Observer and our readers: Our state’s law, in recognition of the important role that public records serve in allowing the public to be engaged in and informed about their government, provides for the ability to provide records at no cost when the request is in the public interest: “Documents may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge when the public governmental body determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the public governmental body and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” (RSMO 610.026) We routinely have obtained Sunshine requests from other public entities at no cost, under the provisions of this law. But Ferguson charges for everything, and is able to do so because this law does not require them to waive the fee, it only allows it. Of course, a government faced with reasonable requests, from the only news outlet focusing on them, ought to welcome such requests, and be glad to waive the fee. Instead, we are faced with interminable and unlawful delays, and what we often regard as excessive costs. To be clear, there are stories we are not covering because we choose not to pay the city’s fees. The city has no ordinance or written policy regarding these fees, but a clerk who considered transparency to be her duty would apply the state law to waive fees, unless she was directed otherwise.

From our vantage point, we can see many problems with the city clerk’s performance of her duties under Ferguson statutes and state law. We are confident that the problems are far greater than we can see, since so little is actually disclosed to us. The only way to get the full story about this is a review by the state auditor. It’s not surprising that the council which has substantially increased the city clerk’s salary would be uninterested in an outside examination of her compliance with state law. If we are to have that, we’ll either need a petition drive, or new council members with a real commitment to transparency.

Research for this article was provided by Sara Holmes.