An investigation by the Missouri Attorney General’s office has begun following a Sunshine Law complaint filed by The Salem News against the city of Salem, according to an email Monday from Casey Lawrence, Director of Sunshine Law Compliance and Records Management with the AG’s office.
The Salem News made a Sunshine Law request in October of 2020 asking the city for, among other things, “the City of Salem’s monthly financial statements for all of 2019 through September 2020. Each statement should include a balance sheet and monthly totals for income, expenses and debt.”
After waiting for the request for over three months, The Salem News on Feb. 11 filed a Sunshine Law complaint with the AG’s office.
“In order to conduct a thorough investigation, our review of this matter may take up to a few months,” Lawrence wrote in his letter. “Following our review, our office will decide how we will resolve this matter.”
The AG’s office also sent a letter Monday via email to the city, and copied The Salem News on the email. The letter to the city read in part, “the purpose of this correspondence is to inform you that the Attorney General’s Office is reviewing this matter to ensure compliance with the Sunshine Law.”
The email to the city also included the complaint filed by The Salem News.
The AG’s office also asked that the city provide a written response to the allegations in the complaint as soon as possible, “but no later than March 16, 2021.”
The AG’s office also made a public records request of its own from the city, asking for “any public records related to the allegations in the complaint,” and informed the city that public governmental bodies are required to respond to a public records request within three days.
The email was sent to Salem city clerk Mary Happel, who is the custodian of records for the city. However, Monday night Happel was replaced by what the city calls a temporary city clerk. Mayor Brad Nash appointed Tammy Koller, and aldermen approved the appointment with a 4-0 vote.
The Salem News sent a text message to city administrator Ray Walden earlier Monday asking for an explanation on why a temporary city clerk was needed, but he did not answer the text.
In previous stories, The Salem News reported the Sunshine Law request was made Oct. 27, 2020, in order to shed light on the financial state of the city after a now more than year-long issue with utility billing. Billing is still running months behind, and some customers say they have not received bills or received incorrect bills.
Between noon and 1 p.m. Feb 16 – five days after the Sunshine Law complaint was filed – the city emailed over 800 financial documents to The Salem News. After several days of evaluation, they did not contain all of the information requested in the Sunshine Law request, particularly city debt and a summary of monthly totals for income and expenses.
Prior to the Feb. 16 documents, the only response from the city pertaining to that portion of the request was a Nov. 16, 2020 email from Happel.
Happel said in her emailed response in November, “I am still working on your Sunshine Law request. Working remotely has put a damper on some things. . . I have to get with Jennifer on some things and she is not working in the office on a regular basis. She has been working at home on the AMI (utility) billing.”
Knowingly violating the Sunshine Law can result in civil fines up to $1,000, and purposeful violations result in civil fines up to $5,000, plus attorneys' fees, according to the attorney general’s office.
The complaint and accompanying documents, including The Salem News’ Oct. 27, 2020 Sunshine Law request, Happel’s response and news coverage of the city’s failure to respond, were provided to the attorney general’s office.
The city has experienced a multitude of utility billing issues since November of 2019, leading to the newspaper’s request for financial information. Through this month some of those issues still remain, and many people have questioned what the financial impact has been.
Also requested in the Sunshine Law request were:
• total dollar amount of electric, water, sewer and garbage (all listed separately and totaled by month) billed for the months of November-December of 2019 and January-September of 2020;
• total dollar amount of electric, water, sewer and garbage (all listed separately and totaled by month) collected for the months of November-December of 2019 and January-September of 2020.
Happel provided some of those utility billing figures Jan. 5, and after a review of those records by a lawyer and CPA for The Salem News, the newspaper on Jan. 11 requested clarification from Happel. On Jan. 13, Happel responded that “it will take longer than 3 business days” to answer those questions. As of Monday, The Salem News has not received the clarifications requested.