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City council considered charging fees to Ozarks Minutemen for E-Verify

A question in closed session asked if the city could recoup fees. The City Attorney determined they could not.

September 22, 2012|Mary Moloney, KSPR News Reporter | mmoloney@kspr.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Minutes from closed-door sessions explain Springfield City Council's unanimous stance on the E-Verify petition process.

E-Verify is software to determine whether an employee is legally able to work in the United States. In February, voters approved the controversial ordinance that mandated Springfield businesses to use the software.

Four plaintiffs, Positronic Industries, Inc.; Oke-Thomas & Associates; Stenger Management LLC; and Joe Robles filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law. The suit referenced apparent violations of state and federal law.

Thursday, city attorneys agreed to take the E-Verify mandate and punishment out of the ordinance. Attorneys settled out of court. As part of the agreement, city council must approve a "clean-up" bill to fix the current E-Verify ordinance.
  
The decision to settle came earlier in the summer. In the closed session minutes of Tuesday, July 10, council made the unanimous decision to "Confess Judgment" which would essentially admit guilt and stop the accumulation of legal fees, estimated to be $45,000.

"They didn't even let it go to court. Settled out of court. That's not fighting a lawsuit and looking after the electorate's best interest. That's rolling over and playing dead," said Jerry Wilson, spokesperson of Ozarks Minutemen, the group behind the initiative petition.

Since parties reached a settlement, closed session minutes become a matter of public record.

In the minutes from the August 28 closed session, City Manager Greg Burris stated attorney's fees totaled $53,000. City staff negotiated the price tag down to $45,350. Council members see taxpayer dollars fund a law that will eventually mean nothing.

"The frustration is that we're having to spend $45,000 defending a flawed bill and then we're being criticized for making the best possible deal we could after having been dealt a very poor hand," explained Mayor Bob Stephens. "The people pushing it knew it was flawed early. They had an opportunity to back up, correct it and bring it forward, they chose not to and that's where the frustration comes out."

According to the Springfield city charter, the city must defend ordinances voted into law, even if council members agree the law is flawed.

In minutes from August 28, council "requested the City staff research the ability of the City to assess any fees against the entity that caused the situation, meaning the organization behind the E-verify initiative petition that drafted the flawed legislation."

Upon learning a potential punishment for a flawed petition was discussed, the Ozarks Minutemen said they were shocked.

"The fact that this group of legislators would even question or make a statement that indicates that they would seek the recovered fees from a group of citizens who acted in good faith and followed the city charter is chilling," said Wilson firmly. "Make no mistake about it; this is a message that's being sent from to the electorate in the city of Springfield. And what the message says is that should you decide to sponsor an initiative petition and we don't like the outcome, we're going to make you pay. And that's not something that belongs in Springfield, in Missouri, or in the United States."

The Mayor disagrees and said the question was to determine the city's options.

"I don't think the question came up as an avenue of punishment, I think it was the frustration that we knew we were going to have to spend multiple thousands of dollars of taxpayer money defending something that was flawed," explained Stephens. "After we ask a number of questions, including the one regarding can we recoup any of this taxpayer money that is really being poured down the drain or into other attorney's checkbooks because of a flawed petition? Is there any way we can recoup that for the citizens of Springfield? The answer was no. That ended it."

Stephens said council would consider charter changes to allow member to amend illegal initiative petitions.

"We're not in any way trying to stifle any initiative petitions. What we are trying to stifle is the issue where you've got a very small group of people who feel very passionate about one subject and unfortunately don't have the resources or don't care enough about the voters of Springfield to make sure the product they are bringing forward is legal," detailed Stephens.

The Ozarks Minutemen said they would not pursue another E-Verify petition in Springfield.

"I don't think we will ever see an initiative petition in the city of Springfield again," said Wilson.

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