Mysterious resignations undermine transparency, advocates say

Sarah Steelman, the office of the commissioner of administration for Missouri, was asked to resign in October.  No reason has been put forward by Steelman or Governor Mike Parson.

Sarah Steelman, the office of the commissioner of administration for Missouri, was asked to resign in October. No reason has been put forward by Steelman or Governor Mike Parson.

A week after last month’s reshuffle that left a cabinet member in Gov. Mike Parson’s administration without her job, a Kansas City area superintendent announced she was leaving at the end of the school year.

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

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

Silent exits from the public service are nothing new. But they have become a role model this year with the Parson administration refusing to explain the resignations of Administration Office Commissioner Sarah Steelman, Senior Director of Health and Services Randall Williams, and Director of Administration. the Drew Erdmann operation.

Parson called for Williams and Erdmann to quit in April. In October, her chief of staff asked for Steelman’s, she told the Missouri Independent.

A spokeswoman for the Park Hill School District insisted to The Star that Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd’s resignation was unrelated to the recent airing of a racist petition at one of her schools, which has Increasing pressure on district officials to improve diversity and inclusion practices. But the spokeswoman did not elaborate on the reasons Cowherd resigned.

Local government agencies systematically conceal the reasons for the departure of senior officials.

In the town of Atchison, Kansas, the city manager resigned in August without explanation after missing a series of meetings, according to a local radio station. In 2018, the administrator for the town of Gardner, in southern Johnson County, resigned after being put on unexplained administrative leave.

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

Public servants most often cite privacy provisions in state and local personnel laws. In refusing to publish Steelman’s resignation letter, Parson’s office cited a section of state law allowing governments to shut down files relating to “the hiring, firing, disciplining, or promotion of” particular employees by a public government body when personal information about the employee is discussed or recorded. “

In April, the office withheld letters of resignation from Williams and Erdmann, citing a different provision that allowed for the closure of files related to “individually identifiable personal files, performance ratings or files relating to employees or applicants for employment. a job”.

Mark Pedroli, a lawyer involved In a litigation over open files with the governor’s office, exemptions for public personnel files have been called the “most abused exception” in Missouri’s Sunshine Act. He said this applies to performance reviews and employment information for core public employees, but should not restrict disclosures about high-ranking department heads.

“I certainly don’t think it was the intention of the legislature when they passed the Sunshine Act to shut down” senior officials’ resignation letters, he said. “These are black and white files on why someone is leaving government or if they’ve been fired.”

In the absence of any official explanation, the audience is left to connect their own dots.

Steelman’s resignation sparked rumors both because of his prominent role in state government – head of a sprawling agency with responsibilities including budgeting, IT and procurement – and his entanglement in political intrigue. She is married to a former University of Missouri curator whom Parson replaced this year after criticizing 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 Administration Office did not respond to a request regarding the status of this investigation.

Williams, an obstetrician-gynecologist, appointed by the then governor. Eric Greitens, had a turbulent four-year career as Director of Health. He was a central figure in the pandemic response and vaccine deployment, and waged an unsuccessful year-long struggle to remove the license from the state’s sole abortion provider. His agency’s fledgling medical marijuana program has come under scrutiny by lawmakers over accusations of conflicts of interest within the department and the contractor he hired to note applications from potential suppliers.

Asked by reporters in April about Williams and Erdmann’s April exit, Parson only spoke in general terms.

“I sat down with him and Drew. We talked about things – about the future. We thought it was the best thing to go our separate ways at this point, ”Parson said. “I want to be clear though – and I hope you are making this part of the story – that these two men have done a remarkable job for me since I have been governor.”

Williams, whose family lives in North Carolina, himself hinted in an April 28 letter to the Missouri Times that Parson’s plans to restructure the health department required more commitment than he was prepared to. to take.

“After four years away from my family, I must honor the commitment I made to my mother, wife and all 91-year-old family that this would be my last year.”

Jeanne Kuang covers Missouri government and politics for The Kansas City Star. Previously, she covered local and state government at the News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware) and reported on criminal justice issues in Illinois. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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