Sunset Hills alderman files ethics complaint against Fribis over text messages


Photo by Gloria Lloyd

From left, Casey Wong, Ann McMunn, Thompson Price and Kurt Krueger are sworn onto the Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen, with Mayor Pat Fribis also being sworn in, center.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

A Sunset Hills alderman filed an ethics complaint last week against Mayor Pat Fribis over a series of text messages, but the city attorney decided the texts did not violate the city’s new ethics ordinance.

Under the city’s ethics legislation, which was passed by a majority of the Board of Aldermen in January, a city official can file a complaint against another city official for perceived ethics violations, including threatening or intimidating behavior.

Ward 1 Alderman Ann McMunn filed a complaint against Fribis May 19, which alleged that the mayor had threatened McMunn over a neighbor’s yard sign supporting Fribis’ June 2 election opponent, John Stephens. McMunn and the neighbor live on Court Drive, the tornado-ravaged street which has spurred a long-running contentious debate in the city. Developer George Despotis is suing the city to redevelop part of the street for a commercial business over city officials’ objections.

The ethics complaint is the first one ever filed under the new ordinance, said City Administrator Eric Sterman.

Pat Fribis

Under the legislation, the city attorney decides if an ethics complaint has merit and whether it will be heard by a hearing officer in a hearing by the full Board of Aldermen.

In this case, City Attorney Robert E. Jones ruled May 20 that the text messages were not a violation of the ethics law and that they did not constitute a threat.

McMunn did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday from The Call. In her complaint, she wrote of Court Drive, “It is no secret that I take this particular issue very seriously. For the Mayor to threaten ‘let it go commercial’ in retaliation over a neighbor displaying an opponent’s campaign sign in their yard, was very unsettling to me, both personally and professionally.

“I believe intimidating or threatening voters, or other elected officials, to garner support for a political campaign is questionable, if not unethical, and should be addressed in accordance with the newly adopted Ethics Ordinance….”

Fribis texted McMunn at 9:41 p.m. Feb. 2, “I was shocked to see a John Stephens sign in one of your new neighbors on West Watson. I have been fighting for residential there and sat through all of Despotis’ depositions. Many of the BOA wanted to settle and put a bank there but I threatened a veto. I can withdraw my objections it can go commercial.”

McMunn replied back at 10:47 p.m. that night, “I don’t know who you’re speaking of… I’ve been out of town all week. I’m sorry but your comment sounds a bit like a threat on something which I know nothing about~”

Fribis texted back the next morning, “Not a threat at all. Just frustrated because I have been fighting to keep it residential.”

But Jones said that the text messages were not “legally sufficient” to amount to either a threat or an ethics violation.

To make his decision, Jones used other text messages sent to him by Fribis and even emojis exchanged between the city officials to decide the tone of their written communications. Nearly two weeks after the initial exchange, on Valentine’s Day, Fribis wished McMunn a happy birthday with emojis, and McMunn replied, “Happy Valentine’s Day to you and Phil~,” followed by a heart emoji, referring to Fribis’ husband, Phil Denton.

“Thank you,” Fribis texted back. “The same to you!<3” with another heart emoji.

Jones gave three reasons he said McMunn’s complaint is not “legally sufficient”:

1. “The statements are observations, not threats.” Whether Fribis would be in a position to ever veto any vote by the Board of Aldermen would depend on the aldermen, “not the Mayor’s own conduct.”

2. Fribis’ statement was not directed at McMunn, but at her neighbor: “No action is requested of Alderman McMunn or of the neighbor displaying the sign.”

3. “When Alderman McMunn states that she feels threatened, the Mayor responds that no threat is intended. There are additional texts which contain emojis, suggesting that the text thread was not intended to be harassing and was not ultimately considered by the recipient to be harassment.”

Ann McMunn

Jones went on to say that he recommended “no further action” on the complaint.

The Board of Aldermen unanimously approved keeping Jones as city attorney at the May 12 meeting, before the complaint was filed.

Fribis said she was surprised that McMunn filed the complaint, both because of the length of time between the February texts and the eventual complaint and because McMunn didn’t seem to be bothered by the message at the time. They talked on the phone the next day.

“I was surprised Ann McMunn did that,” Fribis said. “There was no threat whatsoever… Three months went by and I even called her the next day and I said Ann, I would never threaten anybody, you know me, I’m just frustrated.”

Describing McMunn’s reaction at the time, Fribis said, “She understood and we laughed it off… After I talked to her on the phone, we were friends again.”

Besides exchanging the birthday and Valentine’s Day messages a few weeks later, Fribis said McMunn and other aldermen went out to eat with her after the March Board of Aldermen meeting, long after the text messages. Things seemed normal at that dinner, with McMunn “cordial and talking and friendly,” Fribis said.

Besides the election itself, Fribis said she doesn’t know of any event that happened between now and then that would have prompted McMunn to file the complaint.

Read the complaint below, along with Jones’ response:

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And here’s the response from Jones:

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