Commissioner secretly taped meetings, conversation

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cape Girardeau County Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones acknowledged in a public meeting this week that a conversation he thought was private was recorded secretly by District 2 Commissioner Jay Purcell.

Purcell recorded a four-hour, apparently heated exchange with Jones on a drive from Cape Girardeau to Jefferson City earlier this year.

Jones called the secret recording "a severe breach of trust, very unethical and unprofessional" and said Purcell's action "created a very severe problem working in county government."

Jones and Purcell have been at odds for months. Tension escalated with a fight in February over road easement deadlines and again after Purcell proposed office space changes and broadcasting commission meetings over the Internet.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said he learned of the recordings in April after Purcell asked for a legal opinion on whether a road easement notarized seven years after it was signed by Lawrence McBryde was legitimate.

In an April 15 letter to both commissioners, Swingle referred to the recording and asked the men to resolve their differences.

"It seems to me that Jay owes Gerald an apology, and I would encourage the two of you to clear the air over this matter and make sure nothing of this kind ever happens again," he wrote. "As I said at the outset, I am willing to participate in such a meeting if you wish."

Two days later, the commission held a closed-door meeting during which the McBryde easement was discussed and Auditor David Ludwig was confronted over violating the county's computer-use policy.

During Monday's county commission meeting, both Purcell and Jones acknowledged the recordings. The comments came after Purcell called Jones' account of a closed-meeting vote to sell park land "about the biggest misrepresentation of anything I've ever seen."

"I differ with you, Mr. Purcell. That's exactly the way it occurred," Jones said, at which point Purcell lifted a digital audio recorder and said, "Thank God."

"Is this another taping of me, Mr. Purcell? Of course it is," Jones said.

"I tape-record all the meetings for this very reason," Purcell said.

"You tape-record personal, confidential discussions with me also," Jones said. Purcell did not respond.

Purcell has refused the Southeast Missourian's request to release that or other recordings he has now acknowledged making.

"I will do what is right and what is legal. I just have to find out what it is. I'd rather not release it. I'm not looking to trash Gerald. I feel like I'm taking the high road," Purcell said.

Swingle defended Purcell's decision to withhold the recordings in a letter to the Southeast Missourian hand-delivered Wednesday evening.

"In my opinion, Jay Purcell's tape-recording is his private tape. It has never been in the possession of the county," Swingle wrote. The full text of the letter is posted at www.semissourian.com.

Missouri's open meetings law, also known as the Sunshine Law, states that a quorum of the commission -- in this case, two -- cannot meet unless a notice is posted 24 hours in advance. Purcell acknowledged after checking into the Sunshine Law that, in principle, the trip to Jefferson City would constitute a public meeting. The Sunshine Law allows a quorum to assemble without notice of a meeting for social events but bars business from being discussed in such instances.

At a meeting, all records, including audio recordings, should be open to the public, according to the Sunshine Law.

Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the commissioners' commute to the Capitol constitutes an illegal closed meeting, according to Missouri's Sunshine Law. She said that makes Purcell's recording a public record.

Maneke said elected officials should realize that anything they say about official business "may be quoted orally, in writing or even taped and disseminated." She said releasing the recordings would be no different than if Purcell told someone what he'd heard. She said there is no legal penalty for revealing the proceedings of a closed meeting.

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson served on the city council with Purcell from 2002 to 2004. Knudtson said he learned two weeks ago that Purcell had taped one of their conversations.

"One of the individuals that he taped told me he actually played a portion of the conversation with me," Knudtson said.

Though he said he had "no concerns whatsoever about any conversation he's had with me," Knudtson said he'd planned to ask Purcell about it and would give him the benefit of a doubt, but "if it happened once, it happened one time too many."

He called the news "terribly disturbing and very disappointing" and said "significant relationship rebuilding" was in order.

"I respect Jay Purcell's efforts to broadcast the county commission's meetings," Knudtson said. "I don't respect the way he's going about it."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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