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Lawyer Says Missouri Baptist Building Sale Deal Broke Sunshine Law

The managing editor of the Missouri Baptist Convention newspaper may have been fired for inadvertently exposing a secret deal that allegedly violated a state open-meetings law.

EthicsDaily.com last Wednesday quoted anonymous sources as saying Bob Baysinger, managing editor of The Pathway, was fired Oct. 11 for insubordination over the premature release of an August news story on the county’s pending purchase of the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Baptist Building.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Baysinger’s byline appeared in a story on The Pathway Web site Aug. 26 reporting that the Missouri Baptist Convention signed a contingency contract Aug. 24 authorizing sale of the building to Cole County. Plans call for the eight-story former hotel and neighboring buildings to be demolished to make way for construction of a jail and judicial center complex.
 
Word & Way carried a story Aug. 31 quoting presiding Cole County Commissioner Bob Jones terming release of information on Web site and in an article in the Aug. 27 Jefferson City News Tribune “unfortunate.” Jones said the commission wanted time to negotiate with other property owners in the block before word of the pending agreement was released.
 
But Clyde Angle, an attorney and former city council member in Jefferson City, Mo., said by the time Baysinger’s story came out the vote should have already been made public by law.
 
Angle, a United Methodist who is not connected to Missouri Baptist life, told EthicsDaily.com on Monday that he heard comments from the presiding commissioner that Jones desired to keep the $2.75 million contract secret for another week or two.
 
Under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which requires government bodies to conduct their business in the open except where specified, Angle said “there was no practical way” for Jones to contact all the other affected landowners before making the contract vote public. He said it would have been illegal for Jones to keep the information secret “even for another day, let alone a week or two weeks.”
 
“It is bizarre that Mr. Baysinger would be disciplined and then fired as a result of a secret deal being exposed to the sunlight,” Angle said in an e-mail interview. He said it appears that Baysinger “got hung out to dry” in a “surprising course of events for a religious organization.”
 
“This is a prime example of the proverbial ‘killing the messenger’ while ignoring the real story,” Angle said.
 
Angle on Friday filed a formal complaint with Missouri’s attorney general requesting both the vote taken in the Aug. 23 meeting and the contract with the convention be ruled null and void.
 
Angle alleged that the Cole County Commission violated the Sunshine Law by naming an unelected “voluntary” citizen committee to advise the commission, thus skirting the open-meetings requirement.
 
He also said the commission failed to respond promptly to his request for public documents; failed to release timely minutes and votes of meetings on July 13 and Aug. 23; did not give the required 24-hour notice of executive sessions for the two meetings; and did not appoint a “custodian” to keep an accurate record of the proceedings as required by law.
 
Angle said the commission also failed to follow a requirement for “providing a reasonable written policy” in compliance with the law.
 
“While it is obviously embarrassing for commissioners Bob Jones and Mike Forck to have failed to timely inform the public and the property owners affected by their closed-meeting vote, it was no one’s fault but their own,” Angle wrote in a letter to the editor last week.
 
Citing rumors that the writer of The Pathway article is no longer employed, Angle continued, “We can only hope and trust he didn’t lose his job as a result of any complaints that might have been made to David Clippard, MBC executive director, by those close to the proposed project.”
 
Pathway Editor Don Hinkle referred questions about Baysinger’s employment status to Clippard. Clippard has not responded to an initial request for comment. The Pathway has yet to carry a story about Baysinger’s departure, but his name is no longer listed among staff on the paper’s Web site.
 
Angle said in a press release he obtained documents under a Sunshine Law request showing a $68,250 contract and invoices previously undisclosed and apparently adopted without prior notice for architectural work dating back to June and possibly May.
 
“Apparently Commissioners Jones and Forck just forgot to tell us taxpayers,” Angle said.
 
The News Tribune reported on Friday that Jones told Angle in a meeting last week that the Aug. 23 meeting concerned only a personnel matter and not the jail contract.
 
Minutes of the County Commission’s July 13 meeting originally said only that commissioners went into executive session at 9 a.m. and adjourned at 9:15.
 
In a letter dated Oct. 27, however, the three commissioners asked the county clerk to change the minutes of the July 13 meeting to record that the commission entered into agreement at that meeting for purchase of the Missouri Baptist Convention building. The vote was unanimous, the letter said, “but it was inadvertently not recorded in the county minutes due to an oversight.”
 
After reviewing records, Jones told the newspaper that the July 13 vote covered an offer to buy the former hotel building for $1.99 million, an offer the convention rejected.
 
After reportedly telling Angle the commissioners took no action on the jail contract Aug. 23, Jones told the newspaper that commissioners in fact had voted again Aug. 23 to accept the MBC’s $2.75 million counter offer.
 
The sale is contingent on voters approving a half-cent sales tax in February and the county being able to acquire other properties in the 400 block of East High Street in Jefferson City.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.