Wednesday, December 22, 2010

DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS? Attorney's agreements shady, shoddy -- or both?

A righteous pontificator, taken to task 

COLUMBIA, 12/22/10  (Beat Byte) --  If one thing stands out about David Shorr, it's the Columbia attorney's bombastic pontificating on the rights and wrongs of life hereabouts during KFRU's Sunday Morning Round Table radio talk show.   To hear Shorr opine, declare, and prognosticate is to hear the gong of righteous decree.  For unsuspecting callers who don't tread gingerly enough, Shorr can be downright, well -- right, damn it!

A similarly stirring discussion about a controversial EPA ruling has another opinionated pundit, environmental advocate and Columbia Tribune columnist Ken Midkiff (above, Sierra Club photo), calling fouls on Shorr and some "usual suspects," including local newspaper editors and Columbia city manager Bill Watkins.

In a series of outspoken posts on the 130-person Columbia Citizens listserv, Midkiff laid bare a secretive scenario of conflicting interests and high-dollar handshakes that should nag at any resident who believes in the power -- and righteousness -- of transparent democratic representation.   

Shorrs of the Hinkson

Shorr (right, Lathrop and Gage photo) has been in the thick of a controversy involving the polluted Hinkson Creek, simultaneously representing the City of Columbia, the County of Boone, and the University of Missouri before EPA officials demanding action on a long-overdue plan to clean up the creek.

Reportedly paid the princely sum of $350/hour, Shorr is "arguably the most adamant opponent" of the plan, Midkiff explained on the listserv.

More troubling, however, Shorr is working virtually under the table, Midkiff alleges, "one issue that local media have avoided.  At this point, and to this day, there is no written contract authorizing David Shorr of the Lathrop and Gage law firm to represent and submit comments to EPA" on behalf of the city, county, or University.

Potential conflicts of interest make the situation worse.  Beside Shorr's weekly appearances as a KFRU pundit, his firm, Lathrop and Gage, represents the Central Missouri Development Council, what Midkiff calls "the Bulldozer Academy."

Shorr is also vice chairman of the Boone County Regional Sewer District, all while reportedly pulling down some righteous bucks from three public agencies whose collective public face is one of tight budgets and tax-starved impoverishment.  

A little Sunshine Law

Midkiff told listserv members he made his discoveries via a "sunshine act" request to the City of Columbia and a discussion with Boone County's legal counsel (presumably C.J. Dykhouse), who explained that County government functions as a strangely non-transparent throwback to the days of yore, at least where Shorr is concerned.

"Apparently, the County of Boone doesn’t require a written agreement for representation.  A handshake or verbal agreement is good enough," Midkiff said the county's attorney told him.  So much for public hearings and competitive bidding.

Midkiff also searched Columbia City Council minutes, looking for anything that might show a contractual arrangement between Shorr and City Hall.  "I found nothing," Midkiff explained.  "At that point, I called Sheela Amin, City Clerk.  She used a more sophisticated search tool and also found nothing."

Midkiff went deeper, contacting City public works employee Steve Hunt; director John Glascock; and Watkins.

"I asked for a copy of any contract or an amendment to any contract that authorized David Shorr to represent the City of Columbia" in the Hinkson Creek/EPA matter, Midkiff said.   "Steve informed me that all the documents they had were in my possession.  I heard nothing from Glascock or Watkins."

Finally, Midkiff contacted Columbia city attorney Fred Boeckman, who told him that the City Manager had signed an agreement with Shorr without any approval by or involvement of  the City Council, Midkiff said.

It was another "no-bid" deal, with shades of last year's Sarah Read/Visioning imbroglio, wherein the appointed city manager essentially circumvented his elected overseers, retaining Shorr, but entirely on his own.

What's more, the agreement is restricted to "the appeal of a general storm water permit issued by the Department of Natural Resources," Midkiff explained.  It's been amended twice, but just to allow Shorr to receive more money, he said.  It does not include representation on the City/EPA/Hinkson Creek affair. 

Media Matters

Midkiff went public with his information, but "the local media wasn't interested," he explained.  Public listserv chiding did get the attention of Columbia Missourian editor Scott Swafford, but not before the student newspaper mistakenly claimed City Hall had "hired" David Shorr for representation before the EPA.

"That simply isn’t true," Midkiff said.  "No contract with the City.  No contract with the University.  A 'handshake' contract with Boone County.   The Dirty Little Secret that local media has skirted is that Shorr represents only Boone County, and that representation is tenuous."

The Missourian's Monday story on the issue has an increasingly familiar theme:  City Council versus City Manager.  Watkins steadfastly maintained that Shorr was duly authorized to act on the city's behalf; First Ward Council member Paul Sturtz disagreed.

"As far as I can tell, the City Council, which is elected by the people of Columbia, has not deliberated on the issues Mr. Shorr is lobbying about," Sturtz told the Missourian. "Him representing the position of the city of Columbia is problematic."

Shorr told the Missourian he disagrees with Midkiff and Sturtz.  General engagements with the city, county and MU, he explained, allow him to represent them on matters not specified when he was first hired.

Second Ward Council member Jason Thornhill concurred with Shorr, albeit cryptically.  "The City Council doesn't represent the city," Thornhill told the Missourian. "We represent the residents of the city.  The city itself can seek out professionals to do this job." 

Charter Circumvented?

In the end, Ken Midkiff sees inappropriate, non-transparent representation in too many places.  Mayor Bob McDavid should not have spoken on behalf of the City Council, Midkiff says, in a controversial letter the Mayor recently sent to the EPA.

Absent public contracts -- and the transparency they require -- David Shorr, Midkiff said, represents only himself.

And Mr. Watkins?  He's once again doing the city's business, Midkiff claims, "with no knowledge, approval, input, or involvement by the City Council."

"There is a simple rule in the City Charter that has been ignored:  The City Council establishes policy and position;  the City staff, led by the city manager, carries out these policies and positions," Midkiff concluded.

 But in this case, "the city manager has established policy and position." 

1 comment: