Tempers flared during Tuesday’s county commission meeting as three regular critics went head-to-head with elected officials over charging attorney fees to citizens who file complaints against the local government.
Despite the angry remarks from citizens, the commission voted 3-0 to seek approval from a judge to have the county’s attorney fees paid by the plaintiffs if the county prevails in a lawsuit appeal.
The plaintiffs, who are representing themselves in the case, viewed the commissioners’ move as an attempt to silence criticism.
Plaintiff Eric Reichert said it is the duty of citizens to question their government.
But the commissioners say the plaintiffs have gone beyond reasonable dialogue by continuing to file frivolous complaints and lawsuits.
Moreover, while the plaintiffs say their rights to question government are being trampled upon, the commissioners say they have to protect the rest of the citizens by trying to recoup some of the costs of defending the lawsuits.
Resident Ron Keeven, who is not one of the plaintiffs but is regularly outspoken at commission meetings, said the move to seek attorney fees from the citizens represents one of the worst days he has seen in county commission meetings.
“It is our duty to question government,” Keeven said. “Yet when we question government in these chambers we are reprimanded.”
The lawsuit that the plaintiff’s filed deals with the new county municipal court. They claim that the Missouri House bill that established the court was unconstitutional.
The residents lost the lawsuit in circuit court this year and recently appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeal Eastern District in St. Louis.
The other plaintiff, Art LeBeau, threatened more lawsuits against the county commission if attorney fees are sought from the citizens.
The lawsuit will be filed against the county commission as a whole and there will be separate suits against the commissioners individually, LeBeau said.
“I want each of you three to have to hire your own attorney,” LeBeau said. “I’m coming after you.”
LeBeau said the appeal will still go forward.
If the county prevails in the appeal, the county will seek reimbursement of attorney fees at a cost of $200 per hour.
The county is represented in the lawsuit by Matthew Becker and Joseph Purschke of the Union law firm of Purschke, White, Robinson & Becker.
Reichert suggested that County Counselor Mark Vincent represent the county in the case since he is paid “generously.” Vincent makes $115,000 a year plus benefits.
Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer lashed out at Keeven, Reichert and LeBeau.
He said the county commission in recent years has been sued twice and had two complaints filed against it.
“I’m going to call it harassment,” Griesheimer said. “Nobody should go through this as a public official.”
Griesheimer added, “I’m not going to be subject to threats by anyone of you.”
The county cannot keep spending time and money defending itself against frivolous lawsuits, Griesheimer said.
“It’s taxpayer money,” he said. “The days of fun and games are over for you all.”
Second District County Commissioner Mike Schatz said he welcomes speaking with citizens about issues, but he said the courts are getting bogged down with cases.
“It seems we do spend an overabundance of time on a couple of people,” Schatz said.
First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said seeking attorney fees from those who keep filing frivolous lawsuits sends the message that, “You’re going to pay. Enough time has been wasted.”
Moreover, Brinker said this helps prevent the county commission from becoming a place of entertainment.
“This is a place of business for the people — all the people — not just a few,” Brinker said. “It’s absolutely a waste of resources and not why the people put us in these seats.”