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Missouri’s Silent Resignations Reduce Government Transparency

A top cabinet member in the Parson administration and a Kansas City superintendent recently announced their sudden resignations without reason, possibly harming the public’s trust in local government.

(TNS) — A week after last month's shakeup that left a top cabinet member of Gov. Mike Parson's administration without her job, a superintendent in the Kansas City, Mo., area announced she was leaving at the end of the school year.

The two events have little in common — except for the lack of any clear explanation to the public.

Instead, Missouri taxpayers and Park Hill School District parents and students have been left to speculate.

Silent exits from public office are not new. But they've become a pattern this year with Parson's administration, which has refused to explain the resignations of Office of Administration Commissioner Sarah Steelman, Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams and Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann.

Parson asked for Williams' and Erdmann's resignations in April. In October, his chief of staff requested Steelman's, she told the Missouri Independent.

A Park Hill school district spokeswoman insisted to The Star that Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd's resignation was unrelated to the recent circulation of a racist petition at one of its schools, which put mounting pressure on district officials to improve diversity and inclusion practices. But the spokeswoman would not elaborate on Cowherd's reasons for stepping down.

Local government agencies routinely withhold the reasons for departures of top officials.

In the Kansas town of Atchison, the city manager stepped down in August with no explanation after missing a string of meetings, according to a local radio station. In 2018, the city administrator in the south Johnson County town of Gardner resigned after being placed on an unexplained administrative leave.

"Anytime that you have an unexplained departure from government it suggests that there is something wrong," said David Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian group that advocates for government transparency. "For there to be radio silence, no explanation at all about why a particular change is taking place, it necessarily is going to generate questions and these are questions that I think that people are entitled to have answered."

Officials most often cite privacy provisions in state and local personnel laws. In refusing to release Steelman's letter of resignation, Parson's office cited a section of state law allowing governments to close records relating to the "hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees by a public governmental body when personal information about the employee is discussed or recorded."

In April, the office withheld Williams' and Erdmann's resignation letters, citing a different provision that allowed closure of records related to "individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment."

Mark Pedroli, an attorney involved in open records litigation with the governor's office, called personnel-related public records exemptions "the most abused exception" in Missouri's Sunshine Law. He said it applies to rank-and-file public employees' performance evaluations and employment information, but should not restrict disclosures about high-ranking department heads.

"I certainly don't think it was the intent of the legislature when they passed the Sunshine Law to close" top officials' resignation letters, he said. "Those are black and white records about the reason someone is leaving the government or whether they were terminated."

In the absence of any official explanation, the public is left to connect its own dots.

Steelman's resignation generated rumors both because of her prominent role in state government — head of a sprawling agency with responsibilities that include budgeting, IT and procurement — and entanglement in political intrigue. She is married to a former University of Missouri curator whom Parson replaced this year after he criticized a lobbyist close to the governor, the Independent reported.

Last year, Steelman and Erdmann both found tracking devices placed on their cars, an incident police investigated. The Office of Administration did not respond to an inquiry about the status of that investigation.

Williams, an obstetrician-gynecologist, appointed by then-Gov. Eric Greitens, had a turbulent four-year run as health director. He was a central figure in the pandemic response and vaccine rollout, and led an unsuccessful yearlong fight to pull the license of the state's sole abortion provider. His agency's fledgling medical marijuana program was probed by lawmakers following accusations of conflicts of interest within the department and the contractor it hired to score applications from prospective vendors.

Asked by reporters in April about the exit of Williams and Erdmann, Parson spoke only in generalities.

"I sat down with both him and Drew. We talked about things — the future. We thought it was the best thing to do to part ways at this point," Parson said. "I want to be clear though — and hopefully you make that part of the story — that both of those men did outstanding work for me since I have been governor."

Williams, whose family lives in North Carolina, himself offered a hint in an April 28 letter to The Missouri Times that Parson's plans for restructuring the health department required more of a commitment than he was willing to make.

"After four years of being away from my family, I need to honor the commitment I made to my 91-year-old mother, wife, and entire family that this would be my last year."

(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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