pen, pad and calculator

The Salem News filed a Sunshine Law complaint Thursday with the Missouri attorney general’s office after the city of Salem failed to provide financial documents requested by the newspaper in October of 2020.

The open record request asked 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.”

The 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 still say they have not received bills or received incorrect bills.

Between noon and 1 p.m. Tuesday, the city emailed several financial documents to The Salem News. Over the next few days those documents will be evaluated to see if they satisfy the public records request.

Prior to Tuesday's documents, the only response from the city pertaining to that portion of the request was a Nov. 16, 2020 email from city clerk Mary Happel, who is the custodian of records for the city of Salem. Sunshine Law requests are to be made through the custodian of records. As of Monday, it had been 111 days since the records request.

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.”

See previous article from January here

“The people of Salem deserve to know the financial situation for their city,” said Donald Dodd, publisher of The Salem News. “We filed this Sunshine Law request in October because the city was not forthcoming with clear information that included how the utility billing information has impacted the bottom line. Since October, the city has withheld the information we requested, which is basic accounting that should be available on short notice. If they have the information and will not release it to the public, that is irresponsible and against the law. If the accounting is so poor that the information does not exist and will have to be pieced together or reconstructed in some way, we as a community have really big problems.”

The request is now approaching four months old. Knowingly violating the Sunshine Law can result in civil fines up to $1,000, and purposeful violations result in civil fines up to $5,000.00, 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 complaint was received and the AG’s office will now assess the documents, and if the case merits their involvement, will contact the city of Salem, according to Casey Exendine-Lawrence, Director of Sunshine Law Compliance and Records Management at the attorney general’s office. She said that could take two to three weeks, depending on the caseload.

Meanwhile, Salem citizens still don’t know the financial impact, if any, the utility billing issues have had on city finances.

The city has experienced a multitude of utility billing issues since November of 2019. Through this month some of those issues still remain, and many people have questioned what the financial impact has been.

Salem City Administrator Ray Walden has at times given some financial information during meetings of the aldermen, but those have been on an accrual basis, providing how much the city has billed, not collected.

Financial statements with balance sheets would provide actual revenue collected and give a clearer picture of what the utility issues have or have not done to city finances, according to attorneys who helped write The Salem News’ public records request in October, which was emailed to Happel, city administrator Ray Walden, mayor Brad Nash, city attorney James Weber, aldermen Kevin James and Greg Parker, alderwoman Kim Shelton and former alderwoman Rachel Hinderliter.

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.