Parks controversy, recall effort linger over council

rpulley@lsjournal.comDecember 8, 2016 

Actions taken by two City Council members and their detractors continue to hammer the Lee’s Summit City Council.

Councilwoman Diane Forte is under investigation by the Missouri Ethics Commission for her business dealings with the Lee’s Summit parks department. And a recall effort for Councilman Chris Moreno, who criticized the sales, gathers steam.

Copies of documents provided to the Lee’s Summit Journal, which originated with the commission and the city, show resident Bob Gough filed the complaint in September.

On Nov. 16, the city received a Sunshine Law request from a commission staff member asking for council meeting minutes discussing Diane Forte Enterprises LLC and payments to the company, park board discussions, including approval of payments, contracts, invoices and other documents.

Forte’s company twice had sold the parks departments a batch of awards that totaled a value of more than $500. A Missouri law says there should have been a bid taken for the transactions. Diane Forte Enterprises sold the department about $2,000 worth of items over about two years.

She said she made the sales without knowing the state law.

“I was wrong, I was totally wrong, but I had no idea of it,” Forte said. She said she reported the sales on her financial disclosures to the ethics commission and thought that was sufficient.

She said she does not know Gough and doesn’t know what to expect from the commission. It is nearing the end of the 90-day window for the investigation when the commission would notify the parties if there is no violation and the case is being dismissed. If the commission decides to take action, it could take longer and without a time limit, and disposition would eventually made public.

“Whatever happens, I’ll just have to deal with it,” Forte said.

Forte already had resigned as park board liaison in July, after Councilman Chris Moreno and others on the council voiced concerns over the issue. Subsequently a group of residents who disapprove of Moreno’s conduct in office have started a petition drive to force a recall election on him.

On Thursday at the City Council meeting, Kent Ruehter, a spokesman for Lee’s Summit Citizens for Responsible Government, asked Moreno to resign. He said Moreno’s behavior was not only unacceptable but counter-productive. He said the group had gathered about 650 signatures, exceeding the number needed to force a recall election.

“All because I took a stand against years of illegal business deals, conflicts of interest and other staff related issues,” Moreno said. “I'm not resigning.”

Gough said the purchasing issue had been languishing since summer without anyone taking action, so in September he decided to file his complaint.

“I’m all in favor of free enterprise, but it should be bid,” Gough said.

He said as of last week he had not heard any results from the commission.

Gough said he acted as a concerned citizen and doesn’t have a part in the political battle between Forte and Moreno.

Gough said he doesn’t know Forte and wouldn’t recognize her if he encountered her on the street. He said he does know Moreno but is no fan of him or the rest of the council.

“I would have filed a complaint if anyone else had done the same thing,” Gough said.

He also had filed a complaint against Mayor Randy Rhoads after the city’s campaign for retaining a sales tax on motor vehicles in the August election. That complaint was dismissed.

Gough objected to the city spending money on promoting the tax. The city’s said it put out information to explain the issue, but did not advocate for or against it.

Investigations by the Missouri Ethics Commission by law are confidential. Neither commissioners nor staff are permitted to comment on an active investigation. It sends notices to parties involved at the conclusion and will post results on the commission website. Identities of people filing complaints are considered closed records.

James Klahr, executive director of the commission, said there are no laws forbidding anyone else from disclosing that an investigation is underway.

Once the investigator delivers a report, the commission may close the investigation if reasonable grounds are found that a violation did not occur, it could hold a hearing, or refer the case to a prosecuting attorney.

A hearing before the commission is closed, but results are posted once disposed. Fines can be levied against violators but often those are substantially reduced if paid promptly.

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