Council calls for sheriff to investigate city purchasing

rpulley@lsjournal.comDecember 12, 2016 

Long smoldering sparks over Councilwoman Diane Forte’s business deals with the parks department blew into a full blaze as the City Council asked the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate.

Councilman Chris Moreno, citing the city charter that grants the council the power to undertake investigations, asked the council to direct City Manager Steve Arbo and Police Chief Travis Forbes to “…reach out to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to open a formal investigation into all purchases, transactions, communications involving any bids or purchases that may have violated state law, city law or policy, and the communications involving those.”

Moreno then outlined a series of charges that were raised months ago when he disputed her being parks board liaison, a position she has since resigned. The investigation was to include actions of council members and department heads, and wasn’t specifically restricted to the parks department.

Also on Thursday, the Lee’s Summit Citizens for Responsible Government turned in petitions calling for a recall election of Moreno. If election board officials verify there are enough valid signatures, there could be a recall election in April.

Moreno said he was asking for the investigation because it had been six months since issues were raised. He said the council was avoiding the issue and had not acted to create an ethics policy.

Emails have been made public that raised questions of whether city staff shifted orders and money to the Legacy for Parks Foundation to avoid reporting requirements and other issues.

Forte has said she unknowingly violated a state law that required bids be take when an elected official is part of a business transaction with the city for anything valued at $500 or more. The transactions with the parks department over the years since she took office totaled about $2,000.

“We were presented the information; we have an obligation to get to the bottom of it,” Moreno said.

Moreno, Phyllis Edson, Diane Seif and Dave Mosby voted for the investigation, Rob Binney and Craig Faith voted no, with Forte and Trish Carlyle absent.

On Friday, Forte said she thought it was inappropriate for the council to vote on the issue, brought up during round table, just before the close of the meeting when members were absent and it was not posted on the agenda.

“It’s sad,” Forte said. “Our city’s better than this. It’s not the proper way to do things.”

She said believes the ongoing controversy is a witch hunt.

“It’s silly to leap before we get a performance audit to look at, (to) launch an investigation of ourselves.”   

Binney and Faith said they objected to the investigation as premature. Binney noted that the council had not been idle. It had commissioned a forensic audit to assess the situation. The city’s Rules Committee also had considered creating an ethics policy, but decided to put that on hold until after a charter election in April. It wanted to wait so that the policy that would align with any possible charter changes.

Faith said the Missouri Ethics Commission already is considering the matter, and that having the city and sheriff start another inquiry could become a hindrance to those efforts.

City Manager Steve Arbo said the audit results could be presented to the council next week.

Moreno said the audit had “zero guarantees” it would look into violations of the law.

On Friday, Faith said he was asking other council members to reconsider their position and to rescind the vote at its next meeting. A council member from the prevailing side needs to make the motion to reconsider the vote.

He said the council should act once it has results of the audit and hears the resolution of the ethics commission investigation.

“I don’t think anyone is walking out with the cash register,” Faith said. “I don’t think anyone is robbing the store where we need to get in there right this second.”

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