Belle aldermen decline to pay attorney fees over media inquiries city forwarded to legal counsel

By Roxie Murphy, Assistant Editor
Posted 2/28/24

Belle aldermen decline to pay attorney fees over media inquiries city forwarded to legal counsel

BY Roxie Murphy

Assistant Editor

BELLE —An invoice of …

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Belle aldermen decline to pay attorney fees over media inquiries city forwarded to legal counsel


Belle aldermen decline to pay attorney fees over media inquiries city forwarded to legal counsel

BY Roxie Murphy

Assistant Editor

BELLE —An invoice of $3,402.50 from the city of Belle’s attorneys at Lauber Municipal Law still had a partial balance of $507 pending on Feb. 27 according to Charro Reasor, treasurer and office manager.

Payment to the attorney was delayed due to a motion that Alderman Emily Williams made on Feb. 12 to withhold $507 from payment to the law firm that she said was “inquiries from the newspaper.” Reasor said on Feb. 27 that she sent a partial payment of $2,895.50 in lieu of the firm’s lack of direction.

During the Feb. 12 meeting, Williams whispered about the amount the law firm attributed to the newspaper.

“So $507 of the bill is from inquiries from the newspaper?” Williams whispered to fellow board members.

“Um-hm,” Alderman Barb Howarth said.

The crowd asked Williams and Howarth why they were whispering.

“I stated $507 of the lawyer’s bill that’s being billed is from The Maries County Advocate that’s being requested,” Williams said. “That’s taxpayers pay. I am going to make a suggestion that we send that to Dennis Warden, the owner of The Maries County Advocate, to pay that. I don’t think that’s fair for the taxpayers to have to pay. How do you feel about that?”

Mayor Pro Tem James Mitchell said he agreed.

“$507 is being billed for The Maries County Advocate calling our lawyer, emailing our lawyer, requesting stuff from our lawyer,” Williams said.

Rebecca Withouse asked Williams about a previous statement she made to the newspaper when she told the reporter to reach out to their attorney to get answers to questions.

“In the newspaper, you said the attorney wasn’t going to charge for questions,” Withouse said.

“Well, we have two lawyers,” Williams said. “We are during session right now, we are meeting. This isn’t public comments time.”

“We make a motion to pay the rest of the bills,” Howarth said.

Mitchell said he had a motion on the table to pay the rest of the bills aside from the $507. The motion passed with a 3-0 vote.

The Advocate requested a copy of Lauber Municipal Law’s itemized statement at 1:48 p.m. on Feb. 12, prior to the meeting. Reasor responded on Feb. 14 that she would share the bill no later than Wednesday, Feb. 21 by the end of the day. They were waiting to see if the names on the invoice could be redacted.

According to the itemized statement, Lauber Municipal Law charged the city for an 11-minute phone call and an email on Jan. 4 to The Advocate regarding a request for a copy of the Dec. 22 meeting minutes. When The Advocate requested a copy of the meeting minutes after the Dec. 22, 2023, meeting, Belle City Hall said the attorney took the only copy with him following the special forum. They advised The Advocate to request a copy of the minutes from the attorney.

The minutes did not specify who was hired during the closed session gathering, which prompted a second email on Jan. 5 requesting clarification. City attorney Todd T. Smith said the board voted to hire his firm and charged $39 to clarify information that was not included in the minutes. Normally, Sunshine Law requests such as are sent by the city clerk, but the only copy of the minutes was removed from City Hall and therefore were unavailable unless the general public contacted the attorney.

Alderman Emily Williams said the city attorney would not be charging for the public to answer questions at that time.

On Jan. 30, The Advocate requested permission to look at a binder former clerk Frankie Horstman kept available at City Hall with all correspondence between the Attorney General’s Office and any emails passed to Mayor Daryl White, Jr., regarding the Sunshine Law case. The binder was previously available to the board and the public to view in the spirit of openness.

However, when asked to view the binder on Jan. 30, Reasor said the attorney took it with him following Horstman’s Jan. 23 dismissal from the city’s employment.

Asked when the binder would be back in the office to view, Reasor said she would have to contact the attorney to find out. The Advocate also asked how much it would be to get a copy of the binder.

Reasor later called, estimating a copy of the binder would be about $80 for 500 to 600 pages. She added that she was unsure when the binder would be returned. The Advocate sent an email the same day requesting a copy of the binder and an invoice for cost of the request.

The city’s Sunshine Law Attorney Nathan Nickolaus responded to the email. In the opening line, Nickolaus said, “The City has asked me to respond to your email of today’s date regarding your records request.”

Nickolaus alleged that Horstman did not separate closed and open records in the binder.

“This has necessitated my review of all of the minutes to see if any of the closed portions remain closed,” Nickolaus wrote. “At this point, there is only one item that falls into that category and I am awaiting clarification as to whether it is still closed. You will not be billed for that work.”

The Advocate agreed to a $50 deposit to receive a PDF copy of the binder. Any remaining balance would be 10 cents per page and due after the work was completed. Nickolaus confirmed receipt of the email.

“Any further questions in this regard should be directed to me,” Nickolaus instructed.

According to the itemized invoice to the city, on Jan. 30 Smith charged $97.50 for emails and calls with the city staff regarding the Sunshine Law case. Nickolaus charged $370.50 for “reviewing the Sunshine Law request from the newspaper and responding to the email (as requested by city); discussing litigation strategies; and reviewing documents for privileged material prior to release.”

The newspaper did not solicit comments from the city’s attorneys or gather information from the firm’s personnel unless expressly directed to do so by the board of aldermen. No Sunshine Law requests were originally directed to the city’s attorney; instead, all requests were specifically addressed to Belle City Hall.

Sunshine Law requests were initially directed to Horstman in her capacity as the recorder of record. Following Horstman’s dismissal, Reasor, the office manager, became the recipient. It’s noteworthy that city officials and staff autonomously forwarded The Advocate’s requests to their legal counsel.

Reasor said on Feb. 22 that the bill had yet to be paid.

“We have not paid any portion of the bill yet,” Reasor said. “We are waiting to hear back from Lauber to ask how we should proceed.”

A charge from the firm listed on Jan. 23 for $409.50 included a telephone conference between Smith and “Attorney Kirsch.”

When asked if “Attorney Kirsch” was the same as Thomas J. Kirsch, Mayor Daryl White, Jr.’s attorney in the Dec. 21, 2023, criminal case that alleges White stole items from the city, Mitchell said he didn’t know.

“I don’t know who Attorney Kirsch is, but I can try to find out,” Mitchell said on Feb. 22 and on Feb. 26 he added he and Reasor sent an inquiry to the attorney on Feb. 23 regarding the name. They hadn’t heard back by Tuesday morning.

Mitchell has previously said Williams speaks to the attorney on the board’s behalf.

Additional items billed by Smith on Jan. 23 included discharging employee; discussing with city staff and mayor pro tem regarding same; and collaborative discussion regarding Sunshine Law case. Smith wrote that he did not charge the city for the hour drive and return trip from Jefferson City.

Nickolaus charged $273 that same day to “work on preparing an answer to the Sunshine Law petition.”

Remaining charges included:

Jan. 2 – 1.20 hours ($234) from Smith for telephone conference with Belle alderperson; call from city clerk; telephone conference with mayor, collaborative discussion regarding a press release.

Jan. 8 – 1.20 hours ($234) from Smith for calls and emails; detailed email to aldermen.

Jan. 9 – 1.40 hours ($273) from Smith for emails and calls with alderperson regarding agenda for the meeting, revision of agenda, public statement; detailed email to the board regarding comment policy.

Jan. 10 – .60 hours ($117) from Smith for a telephone conference with Maries County prosecutor; and email press release.

Jan. 18 – .10 hours (19.50) from Smith for answering a question from the board regarding Belle City Hall.

Jan. 22 – 1.90 hours ($370.50) from Smith for a telephone conference with alderperson; answer a question for the board; virtually address closed session.

Jan. 24 – 1.20 hours ($234) from Nickolaus for a final drafting of Sunshine Law case answer.

Jan. 24 – .50 hours ($87.50) from DJS to review ballot for legal compliance; compose and send email response.

Jan. 25 – 1.50 hours ($292.50) from Nickolaus for reviewing minutes and agendas subject to Sunshine Law.

Jan. 26 – 1.30 hours ($253.50) from Nickolaus for legal research and drafting motion to dismiss; correspondence with opposing counsel.

Minus the $507, the city’s remaining balance from the attorneys was $2,895.50 charged between Jan. 2-30, according to the invoice.