Cities say they acted within state statutes

City administrators from Hillsboro and Marion expressed confidence Monday that allegations that the two cities violated the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Opens Meeting Act are unfounded.

Jere White, acting as executive director of the Kansas Corn Growers Association, asked Susan Robson, Marion County attorney, to investigate whether the two cities violated the two acts in connection with a joint closed meeting of the two city councils to discuss whether to enter into a lawsuit against the manufacturers of atrazine, a herbicide used by corn and grain sorghum farmers.

In later, separate meetings, each council voted independently to join a class-action lawsuit against Syngenta, the Europe-based manufacturer of the herbicide.

In his letter to Robson, White said he requested from both cities copies of all materials relating to the health effects of atrazine that were provided to the councils.

White said the City of Hillsboro did not respond to the formal request, but in response to an earlier informal request, he quoted City Administrator Larry Paine as saying the documents were reviewed in executive session and were protected by attorney-client privilege.

White said the City of Marion denied the existence of any documents.

Dan Baldwin, city attorney for both Hillsboro and Marion, said Monday that he believes the requested documents have been delivered to White, and that the delay was caused primarily because of needing permission from Baron & Budd, the Texas law firm litigating the suit and that recruited the two cities to sign on for the class action.

?I think they have everything they need,? Baldwin said of the Kansas Corn Growers. ?I met with the county attorney and everything was fine.

?I think what got (White) all cranked up is that I slowed things down, mainly because it?s not only the Freedom of Infor?mation Act that we had to comply with,? he added. ?By signing those contracts (to join the suit), we became clients of an attorney (with Baron & Budd).

?It?s really his call as to whether his work product is released or not. We had to go another step (to release the information).?

In his letter to Robson, White also challenged the legality under the Kansas Open Meetings Act for two separate councils to meet together in executive session.

Baldwin said the meeting complied with the state?s requirement that an attorney be involved when an executive session is called for reasons of ?attorney-client privilege.?

?The Open Meetings Act is not really specific to a meeting,? Baldwin said. ?It basically just requires that the rules of having public meetings be followed. Clearly, we did that.?

Paine called the allegations by White ?a flat-out crock? pursued primarily to intimidate other Kansas communities from joining the lawsuit.

?I?m looking at this from the standpoint that (White) is doing the best that he can for his association,? Paine said. ?It?s a typical lobbying kind of posturing point: ?I?m going to call you?and the actions that you did?wrong.??

David Mayfield, city administrator for Marion, echoed Paine?s assessment of the allegations, saying, ?My sense is they?ll be proven to be unfounded, but that?s still her decision,? refering to Robson.

Attempts by the Free Press to reach Robson last week and again on Monday were not successful.

In a press release from the Kansas Corn Growers Association, White stated the two cities were naively persuaded by attorneys from Baron & Budd to join the lawsuit.

?Basically you?ve got trial attorneys looking to make some money by convincing people their drinking water is unsafe,? White said. ?EPA sets stringent standards for safe drinking water and the water that is provided to the people of Marion and Hillsboro is well within those standards.

?Instead of taking the word of these Texas trial attorneys, the city councils should have also consulted with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment or EPA.?

From the start, Paine has acknowledged that the atrazine readings at Hillsboro are less than half the maximum allowed by the EPA. But he added that a search of the issue by water-treatment personnel revealed differing conclusions about the effect of atrazine, even at levels lower than the EPA standard.

?Our customers deserve the best (water) we can give them,? Paine said. ?The fact that we?re passing through some atrazine (into the drinking water) doesn?t mean that it?s bad for the customer. It?s just not as good as it could be.

?My opinion on this is based on the question, What can I do for my water customer? If I can do something to improve the water quality, I better be doing it.?

Both city administrators said it will be up to their respective councils whether the decision to join the class action will be reconsidered following negative feedback from various farm groups and practitioners.

?The council has the policy-making responsibility to help us meet water quality standards.? Paine said. ?If the council decides they want to continue on with this (suit), that?s fine. And if they don?t, that?s fine, too.

Mayfield said: ?My council, when they considered this, decided to leave it in the hands of the court and a judge and jury to decide whether or not the atrazine makers are in the right or if the lawsuit is justifiable.

?My council was putting their faith in the court system.?

Both Paine and Mayfield both said they have been surprised by energy the Kansas Corn Growers Association has invested in this issue, particularly the way it has focused almost exclusively on Hillsboro and Marion.

In addition to publicizing the allegations regarding open meetings and records, the organization also participated in a meeting in Marion intended to educate officials from both communities about the safety of using atrazine.

?I can?t understand why the Kansas Corn Growers Associa?tion has singled us out and why they are making allegations against only our cities,? Mayfield said. ?We?re not the only two towns in the state of Kansas (to sign on).?

Mayfield said he was informed by the city?s attorney from Baron & Budd that 10 cities in Kansas have joined the class action.

?Some of them did it before we did and some of them after,? Mayfield said.

The attorney with Baron & Budd declined to name those cities.

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