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City attorney calls for investigation of mayor

No one has been willing to comment publicly since Marion City Council met Friday and City Attorney Dan Baldwin determined that an investigation of Mayor Mary Olson was in order.

In an official press release Monday, the city stated that Baldwin had asked the Kansas attorney general’s office conduct an investigation regarding allegations that Olson violated a state law that makes it a Class A misdemeanor to commit “an act of maliciously circulating false rumors concerning financial status.”

Sources have told the Marion County Record that the accusation stems from rumors — apparently unfounded — about a local business having financial problems. The incident in question reportedly occurred March 10. (See related editorial.)

When Baldwin was contacted for more information, he declined to comment.

Olson’s attorney, Tim Hodge of Newton, said no charges or civil suit had been filed, and he was not aware of any investigation.

“There’s nothing to comment on,” he said.

The Kansas attorney general’s office confirmed that a conversation with Baldwin had occurred but could not divulge any other information.

“The attorney general sometimes does take misdemeanor cases,” director of communications Ashley Anstaett said when asked. “The office reviews a wide variety of cases.”

Impartial legal scholars contacted by the Record indicated that the law — generically known as criminal libel — is an uncommon remedy that requires proof not merely that someone spread a false and damaging rumor but also that the person did so knowingly or with reckless disregard for whether the rumor was false.

The U.S. Supreme Court severely limited the applicability of such statutes in a 1964 ruling, they said.

A more likely remedy, the scholars suggested, would be for the business that alleges it was injured to sue on its own in civil court, without government prosecution.

As of deadline, no such lawsuit had been filed nor was there any indication from anyone that such a suit would be filed.

Councilman Gene Winkler, who called the special meeting and made the initial complaint, would not comment.

Olson, who was scheduled to answer questions during a town hall meeting Sunday, declined to participate, saying she did so on advice of counsel.

Friday’s special meeting began with Olson asking Baldwin the order of business and whether she should preside over the meeting since she was the subject of the discussion.

Baldwin responded that anyone could make a motion to approve the agenda, which stated the meeting was to discuss an elected official, and then the council could move forward.

Olson asked who other than she had authority to call a special meeting. Baldwin advised her to “be quiet” and recommended an executive session so he could advise her.

When Olson asked who had called the special meeting, Winkler said he had requested the special meeting because of Olson’s actions. He did not divulge what those actions were.

The council then entered into a 10-minute executive session.

When the council returned to open session, Olson asked Baldwin to read aloud the two-sentence statute at issue. Baldwin declined to do so.

As part of the news release Monday, Baldwin said, “I cannot give the mayor personal advice. Personally, I believe that an investigation needs to take place.”

At the meeting, Baldwin said only that he would that he would request an investigation and call the attorney general to make the request.

He then advised Olson to seek her own counsel and recommended she not make any more statements.

“I will not be involved,” he said. “My job is done at this meeting other than to maintain peace.”

The meeting then adjourned, with Olson the sole member voting against adjournment.

Councilman Bill Holdeman was not in attendance because he was out of town. Councilmen Steve Smith, who is opposing Olson in her re-election bid April 6, and Stacey Collett, like Winkler who are retiring from the council, were in attendance but did not comment publicly.

The next regular council meeting will be at 4:30 p.m. Monday in the city building.

City ordinances 1263 and 1286 state that the mayor may call special special meetings not in conformity with the regular meeting schedule.

K.S.A. 14-111 states that the schedule for regular meetings shall be prescribed by ordinance and that special meetings may be called by the mayor, the acting mayor or written request from any three members of the city council.

The Marion County Record has asked under the Kansas Open Records Act for copies of any written requests made and all public records pursuant to the investigation.

Last modified March 18, 2010

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