KEN MIDKIFF: Citizens have a right to know why city employees are fired

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In the Revised Statutes of Missouri, Section 610.021, it states plainly that public bodies are authorized to close public records. Paragraph (3) goes into some detail about personnel records:

"Hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees by a public governmental body when personal information about the employee is discussed or recorded. However, any vote on a final decision, when taken by a public governmental body, to hire, fire, promote or discipline an employee of a public governmental body shall be made available with a record of how each member voted to the public within seventy-two hours of the close of the meeting where such action occurs; provided, however, that any employee so affected shall be entitled to prompt notice of such decision during the seventy-two-hour period before such decision is made available to the public. As used in this subdivision, the term "personal information" means information relating to the performance or merit of individual employees."

Citing “rules” of the city's Human Resources Department, members of the City Council will not talk about why Police Chief Ken Burton was placed on leave. Presumably, this applies to all city staff.

Huh? Neither the City Council nor the HR Department pay the salaries of city staff. We, the taxpayers, do.

Yet the very people who pick up the tab are prohibited from knowing anything about the hiring, firing, disciplining or even the evaluations about performance of the very persons whose salaries we pay. (While it could be asserted that other public employees — such as MU faculty and staff — are also paid by the taxpayers, this is indirect. MU funds are in the state budget as approved by the House, Senate and governor.)

Granted, the statutes do allow public governmental bodies to close public records pertaining to employees. BUT, the public governmental body must take affirmative action to close employee records.

This, apparently, is meant to protect the privacy of employees who may have been engaged in a bit of wrongdoing or who have received a bad evaluation. While this may be well and good, how about the people paying the salary of that wrongdoer or the recipient of a bad evaluation? Don't we have a right to know?

Such is the case with ex-Chief Burton. This newspaper, via an Open Records and Meetings (aka “Sunshine Act”) request, was able to obtain several emails from Acting City Manager John Glascock and then-Chief Burton's responses. These seemingly had to do with the work habits of Burton.

Missourian reporters staked out several locations and determined that Burton, on several occasions, showed up for work from two to three hours past the time when he assured Glascock that he would be at his desk — 8 a.m. — and that he left his office shortly before 4 p.m. in order to begin drinking at Flat Branch Pub & Brewing.

No doubt, Burton would be embarrassed if it were known that the reason he was placed on paid leave was due to his poor work habits (not to mention lying to Glascock). There is also no doubt that he was happy to receive his paychecks (totaling about $152,000 per year), thanks to Columbia citizens.

It should not need to take a records request nor stakeouts by reporters to reveal what taxpayers have a right to know. We pay the bills. That overrides any alleged right to privacy.

City employees work for us. It should be made clear to city employees that the public will know whether they've been good or bad.

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