On November 15, 2022, Phelps County Circuit Judge John Beger issued a judgment holding that the City of Edgar Springs, Missouri, had violated Rebecca Varney’s right to due process of law by banning her from City Hall for four years without first notifying her of its factual or legal basis for doing so and without giving her an opportunity to dispute such a basis at a meaningful time and in a meaningful manner. Judge Beger also held that the City had purposefully violated the Sunshine Law by denying Varney the right to inspect public records in person at the place they were held and by failing to respond properly to Varney’s requests for public records.Partial-Summary-Judgment-in-Favor-of-Varney
Varney is a government watchdog who had a long history of going to City Hall to review and make her own photographs of public records, then loudly speaking out about the mismanagement her research had uncovered. In 2018 City officials decided they had had enough and they banned her from entering City Hall, which meant that she could only review public records if she waited days for the City to respond to her request, then paid for the City to produce copies of the records she had requested. The City never formally explained why it was imposing the ban – it did not accuse Varney of violating any law or of engaging in any specific misbehavior – nor did the City give Varney any opportunity to argue that the ban was unjustified or unlawful.
In the meantime, although the City had expressly instructed Varney to submit her Sunshine Law requests to a specific email address, the City would merely respond to her emails with an acknowledgement that her requests had been received… but then the City never produced the requested records! The City’s failure to respond properly to these requests was all the more bizarre because the State Auditor’s office had previously made clear the City’s legal obligation to do so and the City had informed the Auditor that it had taken steps to bring itself into compliance with the Sunshine Law.
With the Freedom Center’s help, Varney sued the City in 2020. The City has fought for two years before finally rescinding its City Hall ban. Yet even when it withdrew the ban, the City still refused to allow Varney to personally inspect and photograph public records at City Hall and it still failed to respond properly to her requests for public records.
“The City’s constitutional and Sunshine Law violations here were not subtle,” said Dave Roland, the Freedom Center’s director of litigation and the attorney who represented Varney. “The most bizarre aspect of this case is that the City decided to waste two years and tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars fighting a case they were destined to lose.”
Missouri law states that when a citizen proves a purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law the courts are to award a civil penalty of up to $5,000. Varney wanted to be clear that this case was never about money for her, so she only asked the court to award her $100 per violation. Judge Beger held that such a light penalty would be inadequate in light of the brazen violations she had proven, using his discretion to order the City to pay Varney $300 per violation.
In addition to the four counts the court has now resolved in Varney’s favor she is arguing that the City violated her rights to equal protection of the laws, her right to free expression, her right to petition her government for redress of grievances, and also that it conducted numerous public meetings in violation of the Sunshine Law. These claims will have to be resolved following a trial, although the court has not yet set a date for the trial.