A Munroe Falls City Councilman took legal action this past week to obtain public records which he said city officials have not provided to him.
Councilman Mike Barnes filed a complaint in Summit County Common Pleas Court against both the city and Mayor James Armstrong to compel the parties to release public records that Barnes said he has sought — but not received — at various times during the past year.
Barnes is seeking a writ of mandamus ordering the city and the mayor to release all of the requested documents, statutory damages in an amount to be determined by the court if the defendants do not comply with a court order, and attorney fees and expenses. Barnes is being represented by John Chapman.
Barnes told his colleagues about his complaint at the conclusion of the Council meeting Tuesday night.
"It’s my hope that the records will be released," Barnes said. "I don’t believe it should cost the city anything significant. Hopefully legal fees will be minimal, but I felt it necessary because we live in a free society." He noted transparency is connected with "good, healthy government."
In the meeting, Armstrong noted, "I think all members of Council know the voluminous stuff that is constantly being asked weekly from Mr. Barnes of our limited staff, and I believe that they’re on pace to respond about … once a week to his requests."
Barnes responded that if the requests "had been answered as they came in, there wouldn’t be a backlog."
Armstrong told the Stow Sentry that the state now has procedures in which a person can pay $25 to "file a complaint in the Court of Claims to obtain records he or she alleges have not been provided." A mediator would be appointed to resolve the matter "at a fraction of the cost of litigation," according to Armstrong.
"If Mr. Barnes’ real interest is obtaining records, he could easily have filed in the Court of Claims or simply asked his counsel to contact the city prior to filing," said Armstrong.
More details on the complaint
In his complaint, Barnes listed more than 10 separate public records requests he submitted to the city’s finance director and keeper of records, Karen Reynolds, from Aug. 9, 2017, to May 21, 2018.
In a majority of the documented requests, Barnes stated in his complaint that "none of the requested records were provided." For the remaining requests, some information was provided, according to Barnes.
The complaint stated that "some of the same information requested has been prepared and provided to third parties, including other persons making their records requests subsequent to Mr. Barnes."
The complaint noted that Barnes, on Dec. 29, 2017, requested several items related to an apparent dispute that occurred between Armstrong and former Munroe Falls Police Sgt. Robert Post on Dec. 3, 2017. Barnes requested copies of all statements made by Armstrong, Post, Chief Jerry Hughes and others involved in the incident. Barnes also said in his complaint that he requested: all police reports related to the incident; copies of internal and external video surveillance of the police department and parking lot on Dec. 3, 2017 between 12:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m.; all handwritten and electronic communication between Armstrong, Hughes and Law Director Tom Kostoff about the incident; and all Mobile Display Terminal communications that occurred between police officers on Dec. 3, 2017 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
"While some requested records were provided, not all of the information was provided and no explanation was given," Barnes wrote in his complaint.
Post was suspended with pay shortly after the incident on Dec. 3, 2017, and had remained in that status until his employment was terminated in April. A Summit County Sheriff’s Office investigation concluded in early January that Post did not violate any police department rules and regulations in that incident with Armstrong. Post, however, had his employment terminated "following an investigation as the result of a citizen’s complaint," Hughes said back in April.
Among the other records that Barnes said he requested are:
• dates and costs of seminars attended by city employees;
• records connected with organizations for which the city had paid membership fees for any city employee since Jan. 1, 2016;
• records of seminars that the city was planning to pay for any employee to attend in the future;
• a copy of Hughes’ employment agreement;
• information on compensatory time taken by some city employees;
• copies of the November 2017 and December 2017 work schedule for the police department;
• all emails sent by Hughes from Oct. 1, 2017 to Nov. 10, 2017;
• copies of time cards and other records used to track hours worked by police officers for certain pay periods;
• copies of police department work schedules and duty rosters for January, February and March 2018;
• personnel records for four current police officers; and
• hourly pay rates of full and part-time officers and year-to-date earnings of police personnel through April 2018.
In his complaint, Barnes alleges Armstrong "unilaterally and without legal authority labeled [Barnes’] requests for information … to be ‘vexatious’ and has stated that he [Armstrong] was taking punitive action against him [Barnes] by restricting his access to information."
In August 2017, Armstrong sent a letter to Barnes in which he required the Councilman to submit formal requests to officials so that the law director can review documents before they are released. In that letter, Armstrong said he was imposing the requirement in response to what he described as "endless" public records requests from Barnes and because Barnes had recently posted police dispatch records and videos on his Facebook page.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.