ROLLA – A story that began with a small-town traffic stop will end with a judge deciding whether government officials tried to silence a critic by banning her from city hall.
Rebecca Varney already won one round in her lawsuit accusing the city of Edgar Springs of repeated violations of Missouri’s Sunshine Law. On Friday she got her day in court on the counts that remained. Phelps County Circuit Judge John Beger, at the end of the five hours of testimony and argument, gave attorneys a month to file final briefs in advance of his ruling.
“There was clearly a vendetta against Ms. Varney,” attorney David Roland, director of the Freedom Center of Missouri, told Beger in his summation.
City officials argue a different reason for banning Varney from city hall except for public meetings – her presence seeking records on a day in March 2019 and refusal to leave when asked. The ban was in place for almost four years.
“A lot of this is speculation, certainly when you get into the motivations of city officials,” attorney Greg Dohrman, representing Edgar Springs, said during his argument.
Varney received a ticket March 1, 2018, from an Edgar Springs officer who cited her for rolling through a stop sign. She fought the ticket in court but ultimately lost. Along the way she started digging into how often the town’s police force of one full-time chief and two part-time patrol officers issued traffic tickets.
She felt the city was stonewalling her requests, asking her to fill out a specific form stating what records she wanted and making her wait to see documents within arms reach.
“I needed access to records,” she said in testimony Friday. “It is who I am. I don’t want to make accusations if I can’t back it up.”
The triggering incident for her ban from city hall was March 29, 2018. Varney was there for an appointment to review records. She began to photograph the documents, a right recognized in a state law that predates the Sunshine Law.
City Clerk Paula James was on her last day before taking other employment. She told Varney to stop taking the pictures. She then told Varney to leave. Varney refused, because the hour for closing the part-time office was not at hand.
James called the Phelps County Sheriff’s Office, who sent a deputy. Two weeks later, city officers woke Varney at 10:30 p.m. to deliver the notice that she would be arrested if she entered city hall. The exception was for meetings of the Board of Aldermen.
Varney went on the offensive. She spearheaded a petition drive to get the Missouri Auditor’s Office to investigate the city’s operations, which ultimately resulted in findings of numerous deficiencies in financial administration and Sunshine Law violations.
She also ran for mayor, but lost.
The ban escalated in November 2019 when Varney found three members of the board, the mayor and the town sewer superintendent at city hall on a Saturday morning. She came in and asked if they were having a meeting.
They said they were not and she left. But she was refused entry when she tried to return at the end of the month at the next scheduled alderman meeting and informed she was banned from any visits to city hall.
The full ban was quickly lifted, but the ban on visiting to personally inspect records wasn’t rescinded until the summer of 2022, nearly two years after the lawsuit was filed. Even then, Varney was put under restrictions that included not demanding “immediate or full access to city files.”
Just a few weeks later, Beger ruled that Vanrey’s due process rights were violated when the city banned her from city hall without a chance to appeal the decision. Beger also found three separate violations of open records laws.
“Public access to public records is not a new or novel policy for this state,” Beger wrote in his November ruling in Varney’s favor on four of the nine counts in her suit.
Along with Varney, sewer superintendent Jeff Jordan, former clerk James and current clerk Melissa Klott testified Friday. James talked about her stressful last day – training her replacement, being watched by an alderman and Varney there photographing records – but also said Varney was not disruptive, loud or argumentative.
None of the three said she had tried to force her way to records or refuse to make appointments.
Many of the allegations Varney is making are technical violations of the Sunshine Law and were cited by the state auditor, Dohrman said at the trial’s conclusion.
“These allegations of technical violations of the Sunshine Law are made to inflate the case,” he said.
Varney is seeking a judgment that the city violated her First Amendment rights because she was a critic, Roland said, and knowingly violated the Sunshine Law by banning her from a meeting while Roland personally was present to tell officials they were wrong.
“For more than four years, Rebecca Varney wasn’t permitted to go to city hall at the same time and on the same conditions as everyone else,” Roland said. “There was not even a rational basis for it.”