The city of Overland Park says its severance agreement with the police officer who shot and killed teenager John Albers in 2018 is not subject to public disclosure.
On Friday, the city asked a Johnson County judge to toss a lawsuit brought by The Kansas City Star seeking to obtain a copy of the agreement.
In a lengthy motion for summary judgment, Overland Park says the agreement is a personnel record that it has the discretion to close under the Kansas Open Records Act.
At issue is the severance agreement the city entered into with police officer Clayton Jenison nearly four weeks after Jenison shot Albers, a 17-year-old high school student.
Police were dispatched to the Albers home on Jan. 20, 2018, after receiving a report that Albers, who was alone at home, was suicidal.
Shortly after they arrived, a minivan began backing out of the garage. Jenison fired twice at the vehicle and then, after it made a U-turn, fired 11 more times. Six of the bullets hit Albers, who was driving the vehicle, killing him.
Jenison and the city entered into the severance agreement on Feb. 16, 2018. More than four months later, the city acknowledged granting Jenison $70,000 in severance pay.
The Star and KCTV Channel 5 both requested copies of the agreement, but the city denied the requests, prompting The Star to file its lawsuit.
The Star claims that city officials offered different reasons for Jenison’s departure from the police force.
At a press conference on Feb. 20, 2018, Police Chief Frank Donchez said Jenison had resigned from the force for personal reasons. But it was later discovered the city had agreed to the severance payment four days earlier.
City Manager Bill Ebel later described Jenison’s departure from the force not as a resignation but as “a mutually agreeable separation.” A few days after that, Mayor Carl Gerlach said the purpose of the “negotiated” severance agreement was to remove Jenison from the force because “we did not want him as an officer.”
In its response to The Star’s lawsuit, Overland Park argues the agreement with Jenison does not relate to the work he was hired to do, which would be subject to disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.
Rather, the city says, since Jenison resigned, the agreement by definition does not concern his duties as an employee.
Bernie Rhodes, The Star’s attorney, called the city’s argument “absurd on its face.”
“They admit that it’s a severance agreement – that it severs his employment agreement,” Rhodes said. “They even say, ‘And once Mr. Rhodes gets a copy of the agreement, he’ll acknowledge that the $70,000 was in consideration for severing his employment.’ It’s not severing his employment in a bowling league. It’s severing his employment [with the police force].”
The city also argues that since the amounts Jenison was paid have already been made public, “there is no compelling interesting in forcing open” the balance of the agreement.
Finally, it says that if the court disagrees, it should redact information related to Jenison’s personal health “or possible future medical treatment or benefits” as “a clearly unwarranted invasion of privacy.” It also asks the court to redact images of Jenison’s signature and that of his lawyer, Morgan Roach.
“Releasing images of their signature to the public would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of their privacy and increase the risk of their signatures being misappropriated for the purpose of identity fraud,” the city’s motion states.
Rhodes said that argument was ridiculous, noting that lawyers’ signatures can readily be found on legal documents accessible via PACER, the federal courts’ electronic filing system.
KCUR 89.3 is the NPR affiliate station in Kansas City, Mo. You can read and listen to more of their reporting at kcur.org.