An Airing of Grievances about Sewer Sales in Festus
I have a lot of problems with how the sewer system sale is being handled in Festus, and you people are going to read about it. (Crystal City is involved here, too, but that doesn’t flow with my reference.)
For some background, Festus and Crystal City—two adjoining cities in Jefferson County—are planning to sell their shared municipal sewer system. That, by itself, is a good thing they deserve credit for. However, the cities never went out for open bids on the project. They negotiated behind the scenes with only one other entity, the Jefferson County Public Sewer District (JCPSD), on the sale. They went public in June with the proposal and have entered into a formal arrangement to continue negotiations with the JCPSD. (Nobody has finalized anything yet, to be clear.)
JCPSD is offering $5 million for the system. While that may be a fair price and while JCPSD seems fully capable of running the sewer system for the community, how do the cities know if it is the best deal if they don’t accept other bids?
I filed a sunshine request with Festus last month for public records regarding the potential sale. I asked for the available records. I received the response last week. The city’s response is utterly worthless. There is nothing in it beyond copies of prior ordinances authorizing the sewer system, recent bills authorizing the city to negotiate with JCPSD, and copies of public notices. There is not one e-mail in the response, which means either no city officials or employees ever sent an e-mail on this topic over the past year—or they are claiming every e-mail is privileged. When we asked why there were no e-mails in the response, this is what they wrote me:
The City has reviewed the records within its custody which would be responsive to the requests. In response to those requests, we have provided those records which are responsive and which are open under the Missouri Sunshine Law. As noted in the City’s letter responding to the requests, certain records of the City were withheld as closed records, pursuant to Section 610.021, RSMo (1), (2), (12), and (17).
In fact, total secrecy was demanded by JCPSD and the two cities right from the beginning, despite the fact that openness, not secrecy, would have likely led to more bids and a better deal for the cities and taxpayers. Here is section eleven from the initial letter from the JCPSD to the cities dated November 17, 2022, but not made public until much later:
Without the prior written approval of the other parties, unless otherwise required by law, neither the JMUC, District, nor Cities will disclose the existence of this letter or any information concerning the transactions contemplated in this letter, to any third party, other than such party’s attorney, accountant, or professional advisor who needs to know such information to perform his or her duties in connection with this letter or intend or the transactions contemplated by this letter and who shall first agree to the confidentiality of this letter.
This has been anything but an open and transparent process. The public hearings on this matter were held shortly after the proposal was first announced, and the two city councils voted to approve the memorandum of understanding with JCPSD the exact same night as the public hearings. (Officials voting the same night is always a red flag that a public hearing is a dog-and-pony show.) The cities took no other bids or proposals, despite being well aware other entities would like to bid on the sewer systems. Now they are hiding behind legal exemptions to not share any records on the deliberations and discussions of the sale.
Festus and Crystal City selling their sewer system to a larger organization, public or private, with more resources is a great idea. Going about it all in this manner, however, is terrible government. It may be legal, but it is wrong.