CLAY COUNTY — The Western District Court of Appeals upheld a ruling made last year confirming Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s legal authority to conduct performance audits of Clay County government. The move is another blow to the repeated legal opposition from the county to the citizen-petitioned state audit.
In October 2019, the Cole County Circuit Court dismissed a lawsuit by the Clay County Commission that sought to prevent the audit. The county attempted to have that ruling overturned, but appeals court action affirmed the previous court’s decision.
“Today’s ruling is another win for Clay County citizens who simply want accountability and transparency from their government. Despite ongoing attempts to obstruct this office’s efforts to get answers for taxpayers, work on the audit of Clay County will continue,” states a release from the state auditor’s office.
A second legal case related to the audit is ongoing, but current commissioners, two-thirds of which took office at the start of 2021, are reviewing how best to end the legal objections.
In some of the more recent legal action surrounding the county and its state audit, which began in 2018, the county sought an extension after Clay County Circuit Court’s Oct. 23 order to turn over records by Nov. 2 to provide time to mount an appeal to the court’s ruling.
In the Oct. 23 judgment, issued after multiple subpoenas were issued to Clay County by Galloway, the court ordered the county to produce all 2017 to 2019 meeting minutes, whether from open or closed meetings with redactions allowed as specified in the subpoenas, as well as produce personnel performance appraisals. Assistant County Administrator Nicole Brown was also ordered to provide testimony to auditor office staff.
“Clay County has the right to appeal the recent circuit court decision related to the Missouri State Auditor’s authority to access highly confidential records about Clay County’s employees. However, the court’s deadline to turn over the documents in question does not allow for that opportunity, so as allowed by Missouri law, Clay County has simply asked the court to extend that deadline while Clay County considers an appeal,” stated a county release about the 2020 fall legal action.
Since that action, all three former Clay County assistant county administrators, including Brown, have left employment with the county. On Election Day in November, a majority of the then-Clay County Commission approved severance agreements with five of the county’s senior employees: Melissa Mohler, tourism and project development manager; Brad Garrett, assistant county administrator for facilities; Laurie Portwood, assistant county administrator for finance; Brown, assistant county administrator for public services; and Nikki Thorn, public relations and events manager. Later in November, another settlement package was approved with Human Resources Manager D’On Walker. Approving of all of these agreements were lame-duck associate commissioners Luann Ridgeway and Gene Owen, who did not to run for reelection and whose terms ended in December.
Within their separation agreements, employees listed claims including civil rights violations, a hostile workplace, gender discrimination and retaliation while employed by Clay County. All severance packages totaled more than $370,000 plus expenses for legal fees and paid testimony of $300 to $500 per day for any future inquiries into the county’s practices, which may include the state audit.
The audit of Clay County was initiated after a citizen petition was submitted to the State Auditor’s Office and verified to have more than the minimum 5,590 signatures of county residents who are registered voters.
The current county commission of Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte, Western Commissioner Jon Carpenter and Eastern Commissioner Megan Thompson condemned previous commissioners’ and staff’s obstructions to the state audit with all three also saying they are in favor of the audit.