Except for some uncommon compliments directed to the council, Tuesday’s Neosho City Council meeting was book-ended by harsh criticism of two council members.
Visitors’ business opened the meeting as citizen Doug Skaggs praised the city for the well-kept condition of Morse Park
“I’ve never seen it looking any better,” claimed Skaggs, who observed that many people are utilizing the park to play soccer, baseball basketball, fishing, picnicking and more. “The street work that’s been done this year looks to me the best I’ve ever seen it, the paving and everything.”
Citizen Gene Franklin was not complimentary to councilmen Steve Hart and David Ruth, saying that he is saddened to see them sue the city.
“Especially after all the comments and discussions we had over the cost to the city of the TDD (Transportation Development District) litigation, that’s kind of hypocritical, I think,” said Franklin.
“I think the city is looking good, but we don’t need a side show. We need to work together, and now we have an agenda by two council persons that’s not really helping their constituents.”
Franklin read a letter to the editor published in Sunday’s Neosho Daily News by Sue Manz that was highly critical of the two councilmen and concluded that they should resign if they are not going to represent the people of the community.
Franklin noted that Mayor Richard Davidson has taken a lot of heat, and he is happy that Davidson has had that position during this time.
“I just cannot believe that we are at this point in our city where we have this rift among five council members, with two of them wanting to sue the city,” he said. “I see no real good outcome in this, and I hope they lose.”
At the conclusion of the reports of city officers to close out the meeting, councilman Charles Collinsworth provided a councilman’s report, which unfolded much like visitor’s business comments at the outset of the meeting.
Collinsworth at first commended the council, saying he had enjoyed being on the council for a couple of years.
“We’ve made some tough decisions, and we have brought the city back from the brink,” he said.
Collinsworth noted that he appreciates the dissent, as council members did not always agree on things.
“Here lately, it’s just been embarrassing. Guys, we’re better than this. The Neosho people expect more of us as a representative body.” Collingsworth voiced, “I hope that we put you out of business, Mr. Copeland,” alluding to Joplin attorney Bruce Copeland.
Copeland, who represented both Hart and Ruth in a now-defunct ethics investigation against the pair, later filed suit against the city and clerk Nora Houdyshell, demanding that some of over 6,000 pages in documents requested under the Sunshine Law were not turned over to him. Copeland also represents Hart in a suit he filed naming city attorney Steven Hays and Mayor Davidson for a secretly recorded conversation between Hart and Hays that was released under a Sunshine request, and he represents Ruth in another suit filed that names the city, Hays, Davidson, Houdyshell and city manager Troy Royer as defendants, claiming he has not received documents through a Sunshine request.
“I hope the lawsuits will end,” Collinsworth said. “I know there is a third party beyond David Ruth and Steve Hart that is keeping this legal fiasco going, and I think that those are the questions people ought to ask. Who keeps stirring the pot? Who is assisting with all of this legal fiasco? They certainly can’t have the best interests of Neosho at heart.”
Collinsworth claimed that public records provide evidence that there were implications on election night in April when Collinsworth was re-elected over Heather Bowers – who was backed by Hart and Ruth – that Neosho was headed for a tough year.
He said text messages that night from Ruth to Hays indicated that the city was going to see some lengthy depositions.
“And we have, so I would not say that’s been an empty threat. And he alluded to the fact that it had just begun.” Collinsworth demanded, “Well I’d like to know when it’s going to end.”
He said the taxpayer deserves better, and defended the actions of both Houdyshell and Royer in doing their jobs. Collinsworth said he has not seen any special information that Hays and Davidson have been rumored to have, and doesn’t believe councilman Tom Workman, the other council member not named in any suits, has either.
“I’ve heard all this talk about conspiracy and all this nonsense, I don’t believe our mayor or our city attorney withheld any information from us,” Collinsworth said.
Directing his attention to Hart and Ruth, Collinsworth said, “Gentlemen, I would want this to end. I’m encouraging you to end it. It’s going nowhere, other than costing taxpayers a whole lot of money. At the end of the day, unless your intent is to harm the city or to drag more people through the mud, I don’t think you’ll accomplish anything, so I would ask you to stop it. And I know that a number of citizens feel the same way I do.”
Ruth countered that he assumed his text messages to the city attorney were privileged attorney-client communications
“And it had to do with ethics charges,” Ruth said. “I found out that day that ethics charges were going to be filed against me, and that’s what that conversation was about. I assumed since it was with legal counsel that that was a private conversation.”
Ruth explained that all council members were polled at the previous council meeting about giving information to other council members that they were legally entitled to. He had requested information, and said the lawsuit was filed to try to get the information that was never turned over.
Ruth said, “I hope we get through this, and get information that we’ve requested and we are legally entitled to as representative elected officials in Neosho.”
Davidson then spoke up, noting that the allegations and requests consistently insinuate that there is some letter from the St. Louis law firm that represented the city in the TDD litigation about the likelihood of the success of the city’s lawsuit or its appeal.
Davidson maintained that he had never seen such a letter, Hays and Royer both denied having seen it, so he called the St. Louis attorney Daniel Vogel.
“Mr. Vogel himself told me that there is no such letter,” he said.
Davidson said continued conversation disclosed that there never was a quoted likelihood of success, and he wanted that on the record.
Royer then commented that he came to the city to try to make a difference, and feels like great strides have been made in the past three years.
“It just saddens me to see this happen, because I, too, have had citizens come up to me and tell me it’s a circus,” he said. “I had one that came up and tell me that last week’s meeting all they were missing was the popcorn. And that’s insulting!”
Royer asserted that employees come to work for the city each day, and council members show up at city hall for meetings and legislative action. Directed at Ruth and Hart, he said, “These are people’s careers. These are people’s jobs, it’s their livelihood and their income, and you just laugh it off and play it off like it’s something that’s just for fun and games, and that’s exactly what this is.
“You were never denied anything. I never denied you any requests. Never! And if I did, you prove it. And I just think this is sickening. You’ve got personal vendettas, why are you naming me and Nora? That’s crap. You were never denied anything. You name me for paying bills? Which is what my job is.”
Royer challenged Hart and Ruth to show him in council minutes where it says the city was to quit paying the Vogel law firm to continue TDD litigation, as is charged in the latest lawsuit. He closed, “It sickens me to see this, it has lowered the city employees’ morale.”
Hart overrode Royer’s final words, “It sickens me to see the way this city has been run for the last two years, it sickens me.”
Royer countered, “I just wish you’d think of the employees and the people you are affecting.”
Information about actions taken by Neosho City Council Tuesday will be published Thursday in the NDN.