It’s really too bad that we need to write a post like this. And it’s an unusually long post as it examines a recent story on FOX4 line by line. We apologize for the length but there seems to be an ongoing media-driven narrative that continues to sow confusion and misinformation in and around Clay County. As the first county in Missouri to establish an online transparency portal, our intention is always open and clear communication both with our fellow Clay Countians and with the media. But what we are seeing in some media outlets lately, and on social media, goes so far beyond responsible journalism, and the resulting confusion and concern among Clay County citizens have become so widespread, that we are compelled to dedicate time and space to correct the story.
One egregious example of this occurred on Monday, May 13th. Megan Dillard at FOX4 published a story that not only crossed a line in the way it was gathered but had so many falsehoods in the actual story that the best way to clean up the mess is to address them individually here. Here is the actual text of the story, copied from their website as of Tuesday, May 14. We apologize for any typos or grammatical errors but we left them there to keep their original published story intact. [Our comments and corrections are in bracketed italics.]
Headline: Commissioner Refuses To Give Answers After Clay County Doesn’t Pay County Employee [A request for an interview was declined as Commissioner Ridgeway was heading into a Commission Meeting. She had just concluded an interview with KMBC-TV where questions on the same topic were asked and answered. And the employee in question WAS paid. There is a dispute over the entitled amount. This is not the first time we’ve seen this sort of sensational, misleading headline from Ms. Dillard’s Clay County reporting. Despite the commissioner politely declining the interview, she was aggressively pursued, blocked from walking to her meeting and then was made the headline to what you will see below is a torrent of false statements. The story is so incorrect that one has to seriously question whether reporting the truth was ever an objective. If not, then what was?]
LIBERTY, Mo. – A Clay County commissioner runs from our cameras just seconds after giving an interview to another news station. Why won’t they talk to FOX4? [As the video shows she never ran, but certainly makes the story sound more dramatic and her motives more sinister. Commissioner Ridgeway politely told Ms. Dillard that she declined to give an interview and Ms. Dillard then attempted to block her from leaving while her cameraman pushed a camera in her face. Regardless of who was asking, there was no time for an interview with anyone at that moment. That said, Ms. Dillard has in previous Clay County stories, taken quotes out of context, edited them to suit what seems to be a preformed narrative and limited her video to people saying what supports that narrative, whether it has anything to do with the actual facts or not. It’s not surprising that a frequent target of this reporting would no longer want to go out of her way to be a party to it. This type of reporting is not uncommon for “consumer advocate” reporters. There is a disincentive to learn that an alleged problem is not really a problem after learning all the facts. They are taught to find or create a villain to bring down and claim the credit. They have a segment to fill and ratings to boost. Just a theory but perhaps this is why other investigative reporters at other outlets seem more interested in actually investigating.]
The FOX4 Problem Solvers have been investigating allegations of corruption and overspending in Clay County since 2017. Our digging prompted a state investigation [Fox 4’s “digging” did not prompt the “investigation.” Acquired signatures of Clay County Citizens on a petition was what prompted a lawful audit of the County by the State Auditor. This is not an “investigation,” but since that word is much more dramatic than “audit” it apparently serves a purpose. Because the audit is still ongoing, there are not any fact-based conclusions that can be reported. Furthermore, in the history of this commission, there has never been an instance where any of the previous outside audits cited corruption or overspending. In fact, Moody’s recently rated Clay County’s financial condition and operation as one of the best counties in the state.], and now another new twist: [This phrase implies that the audit and the request for an interview about the Clerk’s mismanagement of her office are somehow related. This is more sensationalism and misleading as there is no relationship between the two “stories” Ms. Dillard has crafted.] a request for an interview and an unusual reaction from Clay County Commissioner Luann Ridgeway. [As Ms. Dillard acknowledges later in this story, turning down her request is not unusual, nor as we have found, is her seeming propensity for reporting only what supports her storyline.]
Thousands of citizens signed a petition to have the county audited, among claims of wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars. FOX4 showed you that misspending in several Problem Solver stories last year. [Note how she goes from “claims” of misspending to pronouncing judgment, suggesting that the state auditor is merely a rubber stamp on Ms. Dillard’s own conclusions.]
Then, the state auditor stepped in to take a closer look; the county tried to sue her and block the audit. That fell through in court, and the audit continues. [Completely, 100% false and astonishingly misleading. And as a reporter who has closely followed the story, she absolutely knows it’s false. The county took legal action to keep confidential attorney/client privileged communications, employee personnel records including health, FMLA, disciplinary, et al, from becoming a part of an open public record. The county has been cooperating completely with the audit and has taken no legal action to stop it. The decision made by the Cole County Circuit Court only resolved a question of timing, not the merit of the County’s assertion that these records were not relevant to the audit. The Audit never stopped. Staff continued to take requests after the filing and be available for any and all requests made by the State Auditor. All financial transactions made in the past two years have been turned over as requested to the audit team, including 300,000 lines of data and more than 1,300 pages of documents. Any credible news outlet would publish a correction on this point alone, let alone the rest of the errors in this story.]
But so do the issues.
“We have a commission that has given themselves giant pay raises,” County Clerk Megan Thompson said. “They’ve given themselves cash bonuses, and now they’re refusing to pay an employee who has actually earned her paycheck. It’s just not right.” [They did not give themselves giant pay raises and cash bonuses. In finally getting officeholder salaries compliant with state law (state law governs county officeholder salaries), it was discovered that some offices were underpaid for years, and others were at the very top of the pay scale. Clerk Thompson was actually the HIGHEST paid office — above all other offices governed by the same law. In fact, the Clerk was overpaid some years. So she was collecting all of her lawful salary for years, and perhaps more. Offices that were underpaid were offered backpay to equalize years of non-compliant pay. This was pay for past non-compliant salaries — not a “bonus”. The Clerk knows this and the reporter should have followed-up. The employee was paid for the approved hours. She was never approved to work 40 hours a week, as a full-time employee receiving full benefits. The Commission voted to allow the Clerk to hire, train and supervise up to two full-time employees from current temporary staffing vendors doing business with the county. The Clerk knew this and even thanked the Commission in an open meeting for this solution to a temporary problem. The fact that the Clerk had her employee work 40 hours and trigger full benefits even though she agreed to hire a more cost efficient method of temporary help is an error of the Clerk, not the Commission.]
Penny Banhart is that employee. She already works in the County Clerk`s office part time, with benefits. Now, thanks to increased property values, the workload has doubled. [“Now” is incorrect. Workload will increase slowly over the next month as people file to appeal their property taxes. The deadline to file is not until June 17th. Informal hearings are being conducted right now by the Assessor’s office, not the Board of Equalization. If the Clerk had brought on the temporary help when her request was granted Ms. Banhart would be sharing the workload along with the Clerk’s other two full-time employees. The temporary staff could’ve been fully trained at this point. Temporary support is only needed for this process for a maximum of three and a half months. Moreover, the Clerk’s attempt at changing a part-time employee to full time only provides the net effect of one additional part-time employee in her office to handle assessment appeals. If the Commission’s directions were followed, the Clerk could have up to an additional two full-time employees, in addition to her part-time employee, to handle appeals. Thus, the Clerk is willfully choosing not to maximize her staffing options to serve the people through the appeals process.]
“This was a new — a reassessment year. People’s taxes went up. Some people are saying up as much as 50%. So those people are going to appeal,” Banhart said. [As we’ve noted elsewhere on this site, by law any tax increase cannot exceed the previous year’s tax bill by more than 1.9% (not ‘as much as 50%’) if they made no changes to their property. A reporter should know this and correct the information. For that matter, the Clerk should do a better job training her employees and providing them the information they need to better counsel property owners. It’s not Ms. Banhart’s fault that she believes taxes might be going up as much as 50%.]
Part of the appeal process needs to goes through the Board of Equalization, or BOE. Banart has been helping home owners prepare for those appeals. The County Clerk’s office pays her $14 per hour to do this work.
The problem is the Clay County Commission wanted to instead hire an outside temp at $18,900 to handle that work [The Clay County Commission and The Clay County Clerk both agreed that the extra work would be handled by temporary outside staffing during The April 22, 2019 meeting. The Clerk had no complaints nor did she voice any concern or opposition to about the resolution, presented by Commissioner Ridgeway, that gave the Clerk the funds as well as full control over selecting, hiring, supervising and terming temporary workers for the Board of Equalization property assessment process. [Resolution 2019-152]] . That breaks down to $20 per hour: $14 to a temporary worker and $6 to a temp agency. [While that math is technically correct on the surface, it does not take into account the cost of taking a part-time staff member to full-time. Missing is the calculation of the cost of benefits given that full-time staff are eligible for, by law. A benefits package which includes healthcare, retirement, paid holidays, paid vacation accrual, paid sick time, life insurance, and other voluntary benefit options. These expenses are incurred by the county and were clearly not factored into the Clerk’s calculations. Or they were and were ignored. This amount is well in excess of the $18,900 that was calculated with actual, not made up, numbers for temporary staffing.]
“They like to make it look like they’re doing something, but they’re not,” Banhart said. “Why would you do that when you can simply give me $14 an hour and let me work for another 20 hours a week?”
Thompson decided, against the Commission’s wishes, to give the extra work to Banhart, in a move she said saved time and money. [While the Clerk says that it saved time and money, once again no actual fact-checking was done by Ms. Dillard to confirm the Clerk’s statements. Ms. Dillard continually takes the Clerk’s statements at face value and fact, without doing any real investigative reporting into the facts. By contrast, a story on KMBC-TV covering the same issue reported that Assistant County Administrator Nicole Brown estimated the actual cost to be $48,000.]
“This was the best decision,” Thompson said. “I don’t know why they would be so angry about me and my office saving the county thousands of dollars by taking the fiscally responsible route.” [Again, accepting a statement as fact. The Clerk’s concept of “fiscal responsibility” is exactly why the Commission has removed responsibility from her office. She made similar decisions in 2018 that led her to overspend her budget that year and subsequently put her staff in the position to have to take pay cuts at Christmas. Again, where is the investigative reporting?]
“I reached out to all three commissioners,” she continued. “We try to get ahead of this before it was a problem. They’ve saw that this was coming.” [And the Clerk was repeatedly told in emails that she was not authorized to change her employee’s status to full-time. Additionally, her employee was also informed that there was no authorization or funding to change her status to full time.]
Outside of the $18,900, which was allocated to Thompson, but managed by Assistant County Administrator Nicole Brown, Thompson said there’s money in her budget for this.
Thompson said she was told it was hers to spend, but the county has refused to pay Banhart for this appeals work she had been doing.
“We have money in there,” Thompson said. “There was no reason for them not to pay penny her full paycheck. There was no reason for that. I made that very clear to them.” [The Clerk was allotted the money to hire temporary staffing. At no point was she told it was hers to spend elsewhere nor did she voice any objection to what the money was being designated for. The allotted money was put under the management of ACA Brown because of the Clerk’s history of mismanaging funds within her budget.]
“I’m going to work 40 hours a week and eventually somehow some way they’re going to pay me,” Banhart said.
When FOX4 asked Ridgeway for an interview, she ran from our cameras [When FOX4 asked Commissioner Ridgeway for an interview, she politely declined and left to go to her meeting. Ms. Dillard along with her cameraman and producer followed her with the camera rolling despite having been turned down for an interview at that time. The Commissioner walked away from Ms. Dillard, twice, at no point running. Her cameraman, however, hurried past her to put a camera in her face, despite declining FOX4 the request for an interview. ], repeating, “You’re biased. You’re biased.” She wouldn’t give examples of how, nor would she give us the same interview time she’d just given to another TV station. [Given that Commissioner Ridgeway was going into a meeting, she would not have had time to give examples just as she did not have time for an interview. Perhaps Ms. Dillard will consider this story the example she is looking for.]
The story ends with copies of earlier email correspondence with the county. Please feel free to read it and the entire story on the FOX4 site.
Unfortunately, while their story ends, THE story did not. A Facebook post appeared citing the event and even accused Commissioner Ridgeway of repeatedly shoving Ms. Dillard as she tried to get away from the FOX4 crew.
Both FOX4’s video and courthouse security video show no such shoving. There was a single instance of brief contact as Commissioner Ridgeway was attempting to pass to which Ms. Dillard said, “Please don’t touch me.” Meanwhile, this irresponsible social media post led to comments from misinformed people calling for assault charges.
The only assaults taking place are on civil discourse, honesty in reporting and respect for the truth. In response, we will continue to update the Mythbusters section of this site as appropriate. Thank you for taking the time to be better informed.