Lawsuit alleges Kansas City mayor tried to intimidate activist over request for public records
The lawsuit paints a picture of a city government that resists releasing public information and takes requests for records as an affront. It also outlines several instances where Kansas City Hall failed to promptly release records or even respond, as they're required to under Missouri law.
A Kansas City activist has filed a lawsuit alleging Mayor Quinton Lucas attempted to intimidate her into withdrawing a request for public records from his office.
Lora McDonald, executive director of the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity, or MORE2, sued the city earlier this month over alleged violations of the Missouri Sunshine Law. She alleges in her lawsuit that the mayor called her “speaking with a raised, angry voice, asserting his discontent” with a request she filed a week earlier.
“Plaintiff felt Mayor Lucas’s call was an attempt to intimidate, harass and/or coerce because of the tone and demeanor of his voice and because he was suggesting she withdraw the request,” the lawsuit says.
Jazzlyn Johnson, a spokesperson for Lucas, said in an email that the mayor’s office disagreed with the characterization.
“In a decade of public life featuring challenging airport negotiations, protestors at his home, multiple recall efforts, hate mail during the COVID-19 crisis, and a public uprising on the Plaza, the mayor has never been characterized as an ‘angry man,’” Johnson said.
McDonald’s alleged exchange with Lucas — and, later, a city staffer — paints a picture of a city government that resists releasing public information and takes requests for records as an affront. The lawsuit also outlines four instances where City Hall has failed to promptly release records or even respond when McDonald sought an estimate as to when she could expect the request to be fulfilled.
“If you didn’t do anything wrong, why are we having this phone call?” McDonald said in an interview about her conversation with Lucas.
McDonald’s request sought communications between the mayor and attorneys — both employed by the city and outside counsel — concerning litigation attempting to overturn a state law that requires Kansas City to increase funding to the police department.
Kansas City is the only major U.S. city that does not control its police. The Kansas City Police Department is governed by a board appointed by the Missouri governor. But the city funds the department.
Last fall, Missouri voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring Kansas City to dedicate 25% of its general revenue to the police department. The Missouri General Assembly passed legislation to force the increase in the spring of 2022, but it required a statewide vote to go into effect.
In August of 2022, Lucas filed a lawsuit against the state alleging that it’s unconstitutional for the state to force Kansas City to spend more on its police unless it appropriates money to the city.
He filed the lawsuit as an individual rather than in his official capacity and is represented by a city-employed attorney and private counsel. His case was later combined with a similar, though broader, lawsuit filed by Gwen Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Kansas City.
After Lucas’ call, McDonald says she didn’t hear anything from City Hall for more than a month despite following up with city staff. Her lawsuit goes on to say that it wasn’t until her attorney sent an email saying he would advise McDonald to sue if they didn’t get a response that Kansas City provided an estimated cost and timeframe for when it would release the records.
Just two days before the city had promised it would release records, the lawsuit states that Melesa Johnson, then the mayor’s general counsel and deputy chief of staff, called McDonald’s attorney and texted McDonald, questioning why she filed a request for records given that MORE2, like City Hall, supports local control of the Kansas City police.
“As an avid supporter of you and MORE2 who routinely assists with the mayor’s support of your organization, I am trying to understand why we are pitting our respective offices against each other when we share the overall same goal of seeing state control dismantled,” Melesa Johnson said in a text, according to the lawsuit.
Bernie Rhodes, a First Amendment attorney with Lathrop GPM who has represented The Independent in the past, said he hears complaints about Kansas City ignoring Sunshine Law requests “virtually every week.”
“As long as the city feels that it has other priorities than being responsive to the citizens, these problems will continue,” Rhodes said in an interview.
Rhodes said he also frequently hears about government agencies questioning citizens’ motivations in requesting records in an attempt to intimidate them.
“That’s why the law is crystal clear that your reason doesn’t matter,” Rhodes said. “You’re entitled to the information because you’re the people who are paying the salary of these folks in office.”
Asked about the claim against Lucas, Rhodes said: “I find it troubling anytime anyone in authority attempts to intimidate someone who’s making legitimate Sunshine Law requests.”
Jazzlyn Johnson said the mayor considers McDonald a friend and the two share the view that the police department should be controlled locally “even if he disagrees with Ms. McDonald perhaps on the most efficient path to that outcome.”
“While the mayor suggested to Ms. McDonald and her counsel that collaboration is a better approach, the mayor shared with Ms. McDonald that she has every right to pursue her requests and the city has responded to all of her requests.”
In the case of McDonald’s request for communications about the police funding lawsuits, the city ultimately produced some records but withheld others, citing attorney-client privilege, McDonald said. Her lawsuit challenges that assertion.
Steve Leben, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and former Kansas judge, said it appeared the claim of attorney-client privilege was reasonable.
However, the lag between when McDonald requested the records and when the city deemed them closed because of attorney-client privilege raised “substantial concerns,” Rhodes said.
The Missouri Sunshine Law requires governmental agencies to respond to requests within three business days. If locating or producing the records is expected to take longer than that, the agency is required to explain the delay to the requestor and provide a date at which the agency expects to be able to release the records.
The law, Rhodes said, “allows for extra time to make the production but not to decide whether you’re going to give documents or not.”
This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.