Former mayor Bob Stephens and the Springfield Police Officers Association continue to feud seven months after the conclusion of a heated City Council election.
Now, a lawsuit between the two is heading toward trial in April.
The feud started last spring after the police union allied itself with Councilwoman Kristi Fulnecky in her run for mayor. The union also endorsed a slate of newcomer candidates for most other council races.
Stephens and the firefighters’ union supported Ken McClure for mayor and incumbent candidates on City Council.
In the weeks before the election, the police union filed a complaint with state agencies, accusing Stephens of using his position as mayor to sway the election toward McClure.
Stephens fired back, calling the police union’s action a “last-minute, political stunt.”
Stephens labeled leaders of the police union as Fulnecky’s “stooges” – a comment that drew backlash from the police union, Fulnecky and the Greene County sheriff.
At the time, the president of the police union said he was looking for a change in leadership due to what he called “improper” behavior from council members over the years.
Stephens said he intended to find out whether Fulnecky was behind the ethics allegations and asked the police union to publicly release documents and emails related to the complaints. However, the union refused to hand them over, and Stephens sued.
The suit is scheduled for a bench trial on April 2. A judge is expected to hear arguments from both sides, then rule on whether the police union is subject to the Sunshine Law, which aims to promote government transparency.
However, Stephens and the police union might not face off in the courtroom in April, depending on what happens with a new motion. The motion, filed by the former mayor’s attorney Tuesday, asks for the judge to resolve the suit on the basis of the law, rather than waiting to go through the process of a full trial.
In the months since McClure and incumbents swept the election, it seems that most people have moved on. The ethics complaints were found to be without merit and have been dismissed.
However, it’s clear that Stephens and the police union have not made peace.
Chris Welsh, the president of the police union, told the News-Leader on Dec. 19 the lawsuit is “frustrating and a waste of time and money.” He likened it to “harassment.”
“Every dollar that we have to waste for this lawsuit, it’s coming from police officers’ hard-earned money,” Welsh said. “Honestly, I think this is Bob Stephens again trying to be a bully and he doesn’t like it when people stand up to him or challenge him.”
The Springfield Police Officers Association represents about 315 officers with the rank of sergeant and below, according to Welsh.
Welsh said the union’s stance is simple: “There’s no merit to his lawsuit… We believe the Sunshine Law is very clear on who’s required to release emails and information. It’s clear we don’t fall under that.”
Welsh said no union has ever been considered a government agency in the state of Missouri.
Though that may be the case, said Stephens’ attorney, James Owen, the police union can be considered a “quasi-public governmental body” subject to the Sunshine Law.
And if the judge agrees with Owen’s position, this case has the potential to impact other Sunshine Law-related questions and challenges statewide.
“This is probably being closely watched by a lot of other groups,” Owen said. “Anytime a court expands on the public understanding of what a statute does, it has the potential to open up doors.”
The law defines a type of quasi-governmental body as an organization that has a “primary purpose to enter into contracts with public governmental bodies.”
The Springfield Police Officers Association falls under that definition, Owen said, because the union works with the city to negotiate wages and benefits for its members.
In response to Welsh’s statement that the lawsuit is a “waste of time and money,” Owen said the ethics complaints previously filed by the police union were “frivolous” and “contained a lot of outrageous, nonsensical allegations.”
“I’ve never seen anything more patently political and patently disingenuous,” Owen said.
Stephens continues to review whether more action should be taken against the police union for filing the ethics complaints, Owen said.
A call left with Stephens by the News-Leader was not returned.
February and March 2017: The police union submitted complaints about Stephens and other council members up for election to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general’s office said it did not have jurisdiction over the complaints so they were sent to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Incidents described in the complaint include when Stephens rode on a city dump truck in the 2016 Christmas parade and when Stephens posted about the “Mayor’s Final Birthday Bash” – of which a portion of the proceeds went to McClure’s campaign – on his Facebook page.
March 2017: In a Facebook post, Stephens railed against the allegations leveled by the police union, calling union leadership “stooges.” Welsh called the comments “sad” and said they illustrated a “lack of professionalism.”
April 4, 2017: McClure won the mayor’s race with about 68 percent of votes. Fulnecky and most other police union-backed candidates for other races lost by large margins.
April 10, 2017: In Stephens’ last week in office, he told the News-Leader he intended to find out whether Fulnecky was behind the ethics complaints – something Fulnecky and the union president publicly denied. He sent a Sunshine request to the police officers’ association, asking for copies of all communication between the police union and Fulnecky about Stephens.
May 2, 2017: Stephens filed suit against the union after it did not respond to the request for records.
June and July 2017: Stephens and other council members were cleared of wrongdoing. The ethics commission found that Stephens did not violate conflict of interest laws and that he did not use public money to support or oppose any candidates for office.
(Story shared by the Springfield News-Leader. Read the original article here.)