Phelps County standoff: Woman fights order banning her from Missouri city hall
Rebecca Varney stands on the porch of her home in Edgar Springs. Varney, who successfully petitioned for an audit of her town, is suing the town over an order banning her from City Hall. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
EDGAR SPRINGS — A little over a year ago, Rebecca Varney was walking by city hall and saw vehicles belonging to the mayor and several aldermen parked outside.
She’d seen no notice the Board of Aldermen would meet that Saturday, so she looked through a window.
Varney, 61, saw then-Mayor William Gallion and board members together, so she decided to go inside.
Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, before a quorum of a public body like the Edgar Springs Board of Aldermen meets to discuss public business, a notice must be posted at least 24 hours in advance. There’s an exception for social occasions.
Even in emergencies a notice must be posted, as far in advance as possible.
Varney asked them if they were having a meeting. They told her no, and asked her leave. She did.
Gallion then called the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department, telling the deputy who arrived that Varney had been warned a year earlier that she’d be arrested if she came to city hall for anything except a meeting of the alderman.
Her arrival, Gallion told the deputy, interrupted a discussion of important city matters.
“Gallion requested that I arrest Varney for trespassing and I advised him I would not be arresting Varney,” Deputy Cody Manley wrote in the incident report on the call. “I explained due to the condition of the trespass warning and Varney asking if they were having a meeting I did not believe she was knowingly trespassing.”
Manley did tell Varney that the trespass warning now extended to board meetings. And on Nov. 11, 2019, Edgar Springs Police Chief Joey Hohner delivered a notice that Varney was not allowed at city hall for any reason.
It was another episode in Varney’s contentious relationship with the city where she grew up and returned after retirement.
The first trespass warning, banning Varney from city hall except for board meetings, was issued after she began investigating city revenues from traffic violations. She was ticketed in early 2018 for failure to stop at a stop sign.
She spearheaded a petition drive to get the Missouri Auditor’s Office to investigate the city’s operations, which ultimately resulted in findings of numerous deficiencies in financial administration and Sunshine Law violations
And now, with the help of David Roland and the Freedom Center of Missouri, she’s suing the city to lift the trespass warnings, affirm her right to view city records in person and attend city meetings.
It hasn’t made Varney the most popular person in this town of 200 east of Fort Leonard Wood. During the Nov. 10 board meeting, city officials had to make clear to the audience that the city must pay for the work done by State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office.
It took some doing.
“I just don’t understand why it should be the people that live here, that didn’t request it, why they should have to pay for somebody that we all know has it in for the city,” a resident, who was not identified, said during the meeting, which was streamed through the city’s Facebook page.
Varney, who received 26 votes running against Gallion, out of the 78 cast, in April 2019, said she understands how some people feel about her.
“I was basically discredited as a crazy person who was mad because I got a stop ticket and wanted to ruin the city,” Varney said.
City officials contacted for this story declined to comment on the dispute with Varney because of the pending lawsuit. Brandi Baird, the town’s attorney, did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
The first settlement in the place that came to be known as Edgar Springs occurred in 1859, according to the 1889 history of Laclede, Camden, Dallas, Webster, Wright, Texas, Pulaski, Phelps and Dent counties. The first post office in Edgar Springs opened in 1866 and the population peaked at just under 300 around 1980.
Perhaps the most attention this small community on the southern edge of Phelps County ever received was after the 2000 census, when it was identified as the incorporated place closest to the mean population center of the United States.
The central part of town is a mix of tidy, well-kept buildings, including a brick one-story post office, alongside a few weathered wooden buildings facing Broadway, which was once U.S. 63.
The two main businesses are a recently built Dollar General store and a convenience store serving traffic on the highway that now goes around rather than through town.
City Hall is only open part-time, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, and when something breaks, there’s a good likelihood that Mayor Terry Austin, who works as an outpatient therapist by day, or another board member, will be pitching in to help.
“We have one maintenance person, who is the sewer operator and does city maintenance,” Austin told the Independent. “Any work done on a lift station is a two-man job, two or three of us together, because it is a bigger job than two of us can manage by themselves. Late at night, weekends, that is part of the job.”
Austin would not talk about the lawsuit or the city’s conflict with Varney. He was willing to discuss the audit, which will cost the city from $20,000 to $45,000.
Several new city officials were elected in 2019, when Austin won a seat as an alderman. He became mayor this year when Gallion resigned.
“We had new aldermen and a whole new mayor and we were never given a chance to fix things because they went ahead with the audit,” Austin said. “We were already on the way to correct the financial issues.”
The audit, which focused on 2019 but was not limited to matters occurring that year, found numerous problems with the way the city is run. Sunshine Law violations included discussing public topics in closed meetings, failure to track requests and failing to respond to requests when city hall closed March 18 and did not reopen until after Gallion resigned in June.
Financial issues Galloway found include failure to comply with state law governing budgets, failure to maintain accurate financial statements and failure to publish and deliver to her office financial statements in the time frame required by law.
The reports that are available give widely varying information and do not agree. The financial statement published in January 2020 indicated that city revenues were $64,105 for 2019 and expenses were $48,786.
The report on traffic revenues – due June 30 and completed Sept. 23 – gave operating revenue as $157,168, with fines revenue under the cap at $25,425.
A financial statement created from bank statements for the audit showed receipts were $187,449, including $109,598 in general fund revenue and $15,216 from municipal court fines.
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In an interview, Galloway said Edgar Springs books were in bad shape but it was not the worst case she has come across.
There was no fraud or missing funds discovered, she said.
“In the state auditor’s office we see mismanagement, fraud and abuse in governments of all sizes,” Galloway said. “We also find very well-run cities with appropriate segregation of duties and checks and balances in other small cities.”
All of the issues can be fixed, she said, and the city’s responses, indicating they would implement all the recommendations for better record-keeping, is a good first step.
“I certainly give the city credit for their responses in the audit report, the auditee’s response, saying yes, we are working to implement all of these recommendations to audit findings and I certainly give the city officials credit for that,” she said.
As a fourth-class city, Edgar Springs is governed by a four-member Board of Aldermen and a mayor. Two aldermen were elected in June by write-in because no candidates filed, with one winner elected with two votes.
The town’s main services to its residents are sewer service and police.
“I was disappointed it wasn’t able to say where the money went or if there was a disappearance,” Varney said of the audit. “The records are so horrible there is no way to even know where the money went.”
Galloway said even when records are missing, some trace of theft or fraud remains and none was found in Edgar Springs.
Austin said he was generally pleased with the audit because it identified problems but did not find money was missing.
Varney, he said, “wanted to find, basically, somebody with their hand in the cookie jar.”
Varney v. Edgar Springs
In her lawsuit, Varney isn’t seeking a big payout from the city.
Instead, Roland said, he’s petitioning the court for a declaratory judgment that it cannot permanently ban her from city hall, that she has the right to ask for and inspect records while city hall is open and that she was denied rights under the state and federal constitutions.
On Nov. 25, 2019, Roland wrote a letter to the city asking that it reverse course and noted that a Missouri law, passed more than a decade before the first version of the Sunshine Law, includes criminal penalties for denying a citizen access to public records.
The penalties include removal from office, a fine of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail.
That law was passed in 1961 along with a section allowing the person inspecting records to photograph the documents. Inspecting and photographing documents can avoid costs associated with copying records allowed by the Sunshine Law.
Varney was photographing records in March 2018 when she was told to leave city hall and issued the first trespass notice.
Roland also demanded that Varney be allowed to attend a board meeting that evening.
“I believe the word would be recalcitrant,” Roland said of the city’s reaction. “They have dug in their heels.”
Nothing Varney has done would justify banning her from city hall, Roland said. If she was causing a disturbance or being disruptive of other business, he could understand a temporary order that she was trespassing. That has not been alleged, he said.
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“To the best of our knowledge, there is no issue of a threat,” he said.
The records Varney was reviewing in 2018 involved traffic tickets and how much the city was receiving from fines, especially for stop sign violations. She found that the city issued seven of those tickets in 2016, 37 in 2017 and 90 during 2018.
“That is an incredible amount of failure to stop tickets in a town of 200,” she said. “That earned my own stop sign at what had been a private drive.”
One of the issues laid bare by the 2014 unrest in Ferguson was how small cities used traffic fines as a revenue source to replace lost sales taxes or other funds.
Edgar Springs was one of the towns that fought against the 20 percent cap imposed in 2015.
Then-city Clerk Paula James, who made the complaints about Varney that led to her first trespass warning, told the Rolla Daily News at the time that the cap would be “destructive” and “horrible.“
The stop sign, which Varney views as the city being petty, is literally in her front yard, at the intersection of Broadway and the gravel stub of Spruce Street that adjoins her property.
Varney said she can tolerate the stop sign and hasn’t risked arrest by violating the trespass order.
And she thinks the city is better run, thanks to the audit.
“Since doing this, it has never taken me more than two letters to do a Sunshine request,” she said.
Ticket revenue has dropped and her neighbors no longer complain about failure to stop tickets, she said.
And the financial statements are easier to read and understand, Varney said.
“I’m glad that tickets are down and I’m glad that some changes have come but it has been an awfully hard road and a lot of horrible things were said about me,” she said.
The city can still avoid a lot of cost fighting the lawsuit, she added.
If the city will drop the ban and pay Roland’s legal fees, she said, the lawsuit would be withdrawn.
“Let’s just fix it all up,” Varney said, “and let me back in or tell me what I’ve done.”
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