In Parkville, gadflies are buzzing and state investigations are underway
Jason Maki doesn’t even live in Parkville, Missouri. He resides in an unincorporated part of Platte County that borders Parkville. But Maki has paid more than $10,000 for open records requests from the city in the last year. Something’s rotten, Maki believes, in this quiet river hamlet, population 6,700.
Maki first detected an odor of pernicious secrecy last fall, when he learned about plans for something called the Creekside Project. The development, which includes commercial, residential, and industrial components, plus a private baseball complex, is planned for a site at the intersection of Interstate 435 and State Highway 45. It would impact not just Parkville but also nearby unincorporated neighborhoods of Platte County. Maki lives in one of those neighborhoods.
The Creekside plan was to be heavily subsidized by taxpayers. The developers of the project would receive $52 million in tax breaks through the handy civic instrument known as tax increment financing, or TIF. Under a TIF deal, a developer agrees to build something new on a blighted property; in exchange, the city freezes the taxes on that property for a certain period of time (often as long as 23 years). Maki thought that was a lot of future tax revenue to be siphoning away from Northland schools toward a private developer. He was also miffed that neither he nor his unincorporated neighbors were ever contacted about the development.
“Three sides of my house are surrounded by Parkville,” Maki tells The Pitch. “I’m part of the Parkville community. We’re paying taxes for this development, but we don’t have any voting power, and the aldermen don’t feel like they have to listen to our concerns.”
Maki was not alone in opposing the Creekside development. “Half of Platte County would be blighted if those pictures [of the proposed site] are indicative of blight,” one Parkville TIF Commissioner said of Creekside’s request at a commission meeting. Ultimately, though, the TIF Commission voted in favor of Creekside, 7-4. (Both Park Hill school board representatives opposed it.) The Parkville Board of Alderman subsequently approved it.
After he learned of the development, Maki formed Citizens for a Better Parkville—a political action committee that describes itself as “committed to bringing forth an accountable and transparent government.” In September 2018, Maki began sending records requests to the city under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, seeking information about the development. When he analyzed what he got back in return, he grew even more certain that something didn’t smell right.
Using software that identifies incomplete email threads, Maki says he learned over 3,000 emails were missing from the produced records. Some of the emails contained redactions with no explanation provided and were produced in a non-native, PDF format that can’t track underlying records. The records also showed that Mayor Nan Johnston and city aldermen used private email accounts to correspond, which Maki found suspicious; all elected officials have city email accounts.
Maki filed a complaint with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office in January 2019 requesting that the AG investigate Parkville’s possible violations of Sunshine Laws. An investigation into those claims is currently underway.
Johnston says the city has given Maki all of the documents he requested in his early records requests, released the emails in their native format, and that it’s typical for herself and city alderman to use personal emails to communicate.
“We’re a small city, and it’s not illegal for us to use our personal email, so I don’t know why he’s making such a big deal out of it,” Johnston tells The Pitch. “We are required to copy either our city manager or our city clerk on every single email we send so it gets captured on our server.”
Johnston herself is also a target of Maki’s group. A letter Maki sent in August to the Missouri Ethics Commission has sparked an investigation into Johnston’s campaign finances.
Corporate campaign contributions are illegal in Missouri. But in the most recent mayoral election, the Committee to Elect Nan Johnston accepted over $6,400 in monetary and in-kind contributions from for-profit corporations. One of those, a $5,000 contribution from Don Julian Builders, was given on April 4; it was missing from a report the committee filed on April 16 and undisclosed until a financial report filed on July 15.
“Given the training and guidance available to the Committee’s Treasurer, as well as Nan Johnston’s political experience, she and the committee likely knew that these contributions were prohibited,” Maki wrote in a letter to the MEC.
Johnston acknowledges that her committee accepted the donations.
“The last time I ran was three years ago,” Johnston says, “and since that time there were some changes made with elections law, and one of those that I didn’t catch was we can’t accept corporate donations. So that is my fault, I should have thought to look.” She adds that as soon as she found out the contributions were illegal, she immediately returned the donations. The Ethics Commission investigation is still ongoing.
* * *
As discussions began about Parkville’s 2019-2020 strategic plan during a city board of aldermen meeting this September, Maki and Brett Krause—a Parkville resident since 2006 and an active member of Citizens for a Better Parkville—exchanged confused glances in the audience.
“They started talking about the outcome of this workshop they had, and we were like, ‘Wait, they had a workshop offsite?’” says Maki. “No one—not me, not Brett or anyone in our group knew anything about [it].”
They learned that Johnston, the board of aldermen, and other top city administrators had met a month before, on August 16, at the Platte Valley Bank, for a full day to brainstorm goals for a strategic plan involving the city’s infrastructure and public facilities, economic development, parks and recreation, and financial stability. The meeting hadn’t been publicized on the city’s website or social media pages—just a notice at City Hall and the bank where the meeting took place. When the group Sunshined the meeting minutes, all it received was a barren list of which officials were present at the meeting and when it ended.
City administrator Joe Parente says that the city typically holds the annual workshop at a remote location to get away from City Hall and talk about goals for the next year. He says the offsite location is a common practice for many city governments.
“[The location] wasn’t an intent to hide from the public or anything like that,” Parente says. “It was just a place to get away and focus.”
Parente also points out that the strategic plan that resulted from the workshop was put on the agenda, discussed publicly, and presented to the board at a board of aldermen meeting in September (the same meeting attended by Maki and Krause) that was noticed online. He says the city will follow the same process next year.
“The only ones [meetings] we push out on social media are the ones where there is a general public interest like the planning commission or board of aldermen,” Johnston says. “We go over and above the requirement on things that we think people are more interested in. This was a one-off meeting. This was a strategic planning session that most companies perform on an annual basis to set goals and things.”
But for Citizens for a Better Parkville, it was the last straw. These were big, important issues, and yet again it appeared that the city’s leadership was attempting to govern from the shadows. On October 30, the group officially began the signature-gathering process to invite a state audit to the city.
“The state auditor has the ability to do what’s called a performance audit, which will test for compliance with various state laws and statutes,” Maki says. “Parkville has recently made a series of decisions that impact the larger community as a whole, and the only people we’ve had to provide us assurance that these are good decisions is the city itself and consultants paid for by the city.”
Supporters of the audit hope it will go beyond the scope of the attorney general’s investigation. Requesting 10 areas of focus, the audit would not only answer questions of ethics and transparency, but also provide insight into the future implications of the city’s developments and tax incentive decisions. It would also evaluate how much of a voice the public has in the city’s government.
Parkville city officials describe Maki as the mind and force behind Citizens for a Better Parkville, and worry that Parkville residents are being misled about the need for an audit.
“The ‘group’ to whom you refer is primarily a single individual who is not a resident of Parkville,” Ward 3 Alderman Robert Lock told The Pitch in an email. “From the best I can surmise, he is unhappy with the recent development at I-435 and Highway 45. This project was approved over his objection and those of many in the surrounding properties (likely at his direction or misdirection) … But there is, to any of my knowledge, no basis to any of his concerns.”
Ward 1 Alderman Phillip Wassmer referred to Maki as a “puppet master” and told The Pitch that the people who support his PAC largely consist of residents who live in the unincorporated area of Platte County bordering Parkville.
Maki doesn’t deny that many of the PAC’s financial backers are his neighbors in unincorporated Platte County, but he says many of the approximately 100 regular members who interact with Citizens for a Better Parkville are citizens of the city.
Tom Hutsler, a nearly lifelong resident of Parkville, Parkville business owner, and chairman of the Community Improvement District board, hopes the audit petition will gather enough signatures to bring in the state auditor.
“I would like to know the ramifications of the TIFs and tax incentives that have been given to local developers,” Hutsler says. “Anytime you give away large sums of tax incentives, you need to have extreme transparency. I don’t believe that the general community’s input was even considered, from my observation of the aldermen’s meetings.”
“Maybe they’re doing everything 100 percent right,” Krause says. “And if that’s what the audit produces, I’ll be happy. But there’s enough smoke there that it makes you want to see if there’s really a fire.”
Hutsler also wants assurance that the city is being fully transparent and adhering to Sunshine Laws. He says the CID board has received records requests from Maki, and that they have fulfilled all of the requests within 10 days, free of charge, because the information belongs to the public.
Krause, who ran for an alderman seat earlier this year, says, “The shenanigans that the city is doing with the Sunshine laws appear to be counterproductive to transparency and accountability. Maybe they’re doing everything 100 percent right. And if that’s what the audit produces, I’ll be happy. But there’s enough smoke there that it makes you want to see if there’s really a fire.”
Maki’s attorney on the AG’s office complaint, Andrew Alexander of Graves Garrett LLC, has not been involved with the effort to bring in the state auditor, but he says he’s seen enough “pretty legitimate concerns” over Parkville government to warrant a visit from Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway. “There is absolutely room for the auditor to enter the scene,” Alexander says.
The city doesn’t seem to think so. A letter signed by Parente, Johnston, and the city’s 10 aldermen was sent out to residents in mid-November. It cautions that the cost of the audit could be steep and that the city already has its own auditing processes in place. Maki views the letter as an attempt from the city to thwart efforts of the ongoing petition. Johnston says it’s about priorities.
“The audit could end up costing up to about $100,000,” Johnston says. “We have a fairly small city. That is significant in our budget. We could add a couple of police officers or pave more roads. I would rather spend the money that way.” (She adds that, because Maki is not a resident of Parkville, he wouldn’t bear the burden of the cost of the audit.)
Parente, Johnston, and the aldermen say that if enough signatures are collected—537 are needed to trigger the audit—the city will fully cooperate. Citizens for a Better Parkville has until October 2020 to make that happen, and Maki’s confident that the group will hit its mark, citing the fact that 662 Parkville residents voted against Johnston in the last election.
Maki says the cost of an audit is nothing compared to the millions of dollars the city has already approved in tax incentives. He says he represents the voice of citizens in Parkville who are too afraid to speak out in such a small town.
“At first, I was just trying to find out what was going on right next to my house,” Maki says. “Then I began to realize that there are a lot of people concerned [about Parkville government]. I started to feel obligated to get to the bottom of the truth of what’s going on.”