Voters decide April 4 whether to remove councilman from office

rpulley@lsjournal.comMarch 20, 2017 

Moreno

Voters in Lee’s Summit’s District 4 will have to decide who they believe when casting ballots April 4, when they see the question about recalling Councilman Chris Moreno.

Is Moreno fighting corruption, as he says? Or are critics justified in saying he is disruptive and has issues of his own?

Moreno, elected in April 2015, is serving his first term elected in April 2015.

He contends the recall effort is supported by a few people who opposed him during the council election, and they are allied with friends and family of Councilwoman Diane Forte, with whom he’s clashed on the council.

“They want to recall me when I’ve done zero to violate the law,” Moreno said.

Critics said the issue could have been handled quietly and more diplomatically. They contend a faction of the council, including Moreno, has been conducting a witch hunt, wasting city time and money.

Moreno said he has pressed to make sure the city corrected problems with its purchasing policies.

In June 2015, the City Council learned that Forte violated state law twice when her trophy business sold to the parks department in amounts greater than $500.

That ignited brouhahas at council meetings and investigations, as Moreno and other council members voiced concern over the city’s purchasing policies.

Some council members pointed to emails that raised questions of whether Forte was benefiting from friendships, or if the parks department deliberately tried to avoid seeking bids. For weeks residents came to the council meetings to make statements defending Forte or blasting Moreno. Moreno compared the atmosphere to the “Jerry Springer” television show.

Moreno pushed to force Forte to give up her assignment as park board liaison.

She did resign and apologize publicly. Later, in a split vote, the council also approved a $30,000 audit, which made some recommendations, but did not uncover major problems that weren’t already known. Moreno pushed for more investigations.

On his motion, with some council members absent, the council voted to ask the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department to investigate city purchasing and employees. When the full council was present a week later, it voted to reverse itself, however the request already had been delivered. The sheriff passed the task to the Missouri Highway Patrol, which announced there would be no charges.

Moreno said Forte and other council members were balking at acting on the problem.

Jane Monroe, one of the members of Lee’s Summit Citizens for Responsible Government, said she believes Moreno is more interested in gaining publicity than in serving the city.   

“I think Chris Moreno is an embarrassment to the city, the way he grandstands, the way he shapes everything so he can take credit,” Monroe said. “He cannot seem to execute his duties on the council in a way that puts our city in the best light.”

Louis Horner, another member of the recall effort, said talk of recalling Moreno began before the controversy over Forte. Horner, a parent of a transgender child, was angered by his attempt to influence the bathroom policy of the Target department store chain.

Soon after his election, Moreno held a press conference in front of City Hall calling for the retailer to change its bathroom use polices. Forte chided him for giving the appearance that he was speaking for the City Council when he held a press conference in front of City Hall regarding Target’s policies. Horner also was at the meeting to speak against the city being involved in the issue.

Horner said she believed that Moreno began a vendetta against Forte that night, which has divided the council and brought bad publicity to the city.

She said Moreno’s bankruptcy and credit problems show a history of irresponsibility.

“We don’t need someone like that in city politics,” Horner said.

The Lee’s Summit Citizens for Responsible Government, formed to recall Moreno, lists reasons for the recall on its website including:

• Moreno’s $7,500 in loans his business made to his campaign and his personal bankruptcy.

• A lawsuit that contends Moreno cost a small business by interfering with its relationship with a client.

• A campaign contribution to a political action committee defending Moreno made by a developer who is getting a tax incentive from the city which had Moreno’s support.

Moreno filed personal bankruptcy last year for debts of $209,660 after a roofing venture failed and he was sued for about $33,000 by a supplier. While in business he loaned about $7,500 to his campaign for city council.

However, candidates or their businesses loaning money to their own campaign is commonplace and not illegal. The bankruptcy occurred following the election.

Horner conceded the bankruptcy and campaign contributions aren’t illegal. She said the group has been careful to find a paper trail for its claims.

“We’re presenting the facts as we see it,” Horner said.

Moreno is being sued by John Beaudoin, a freelance columnist for the Lee’s Summit Journal.

Beaudoin said his public relations business was hurt because of complaints by Moreno and Councilman David Mosby to developers of Paragon Star. The plans are for soccer fields, apartments and retail at Interstate 470 and View High Drive.

Moreno has said he and other council members feared Beaudoin would try to influence council decisions in favor of Paragon Star. The lawsuit is ongoing.

Lee’s Summit Citizens for Responsible Government also questions a donation by developer Fred Delibero, who also is on the city Planning Commission, to a political action committee opposing the recall.

It says at a January City Council meeting, Moreno moved to give Delibero’s project, The Residences at Echelon, a lower annual payment per apartment, in lieu of property taxes, at a rate of $935 per apartment. That was a reduction of the $1,051 rate the council decided on at a previous meeting in December.

The group characterizes the donation as a “kick-back.”

The city had already approved similar deals at that $935 rate for other Lee’s Summit apartment complexes. On the night of the initial vote in December, staff told the council it had learned that county assessments for apartments were higher than staff earlier believed. The council decided to increase the amount to the $1,051, with Delibero only learning of the switch that night. Moreno was not present, and following the meeting, Delibero complained to Moreno and other council members that it was unfair and put his project at a disadvantage.

During a public hearing required because of the change, Moreno moved to return the payment to the $935 level originally discussed with Delibero. He said it would be in line with other Chapter 100 incentives given to other Lee’s Summit apartment complexes. The council rejected rolling back the payment that far, then compromised with splitting the difference, setting the rate at $993, on a 5-3 vote after a motion by Councilman Craig Faith.

A political action committee called the Taxpayers Alliance was formed later that month, Jan. 27, with David Moreno (the councilman’s father) as treasurer. Delibero made his $2,500 contribution to the PAC the same day.

The Pac and donations were duly reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

“The timing is only because of the election; they were not in return for Moreno’s motion,” Delibero said. He said there have been three recall attempts so far, all politically motivated, which he thinks is bad for the city. Council meetings are videotaped and archived.

“If you watch the discussion, it’s clear (the council) felt our project was indeed being treated unfairly and they believed the new (payment in lieu of taxes) amount was a fair compromise,” Delibero said.

Another political group is defending Moreno. The Firefighters for Progress has raised money and is opposing the recall, said Kris Presnell, president of Local 2195 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Presnell said Moreno had helped raise public safety as an issue in Lee’s Summit, supporting adding another on-duty ambulance to the city fleet and raising the pay of firefighters to combat turnover in the department.

“Our organization, our firefighters, will continue to stand with councilmen who stand with us,” he said.

Only residents registered in District 4 are eligible to vote in the election, which requires a simple majority to remove Moreno from office.

If the recall is successful, Moreno loses his seat on the council, and the remaining members would be tasked with appointing a replacement to serve until the next regular municipal election.

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