Impeachment charges against Hannibal councilman dismissed by judge

Franke 3rd Ward Hannibal

Stephan Franke

HANNIBAL, Mo. — Marion County Associate Judge John J. Jackson granted on Friday a motion to dismiss impeachment charges against Stephan Franke, who represents the Third Ward on the Hannibal City Council.

Jackson was appointed to preside over the impeachment proceedings after Hannibal Municipal Court Judge Donald M. Bastian recused himself in October 2022. 

Articles of impeachment were filed by Mayor James Hark against Franke in January 2022. Hark accused Franke of grabbing City Manager Lisa Peck and City Clerk Angel Zerbonia “in a non-consensual manner,” causing pain to the city manager. He cited Section 18.08(g) of the Hannibal City Charter that provides for immediate suspension of an official upon the filing of any impeachment charge.

Franke filed a civil suit May 20, 2022, against the City of Hannibal, Hark, Zerbonia, Bastian and five members of the Hannibal City Council — Charles Phillips, Mike Dobson, Darrell McCoy, Colin Welch and Jeffery Veach.

Tenth Judicial Circuit Presiding Judge Rachel L. Bringer Shepherd then ruled June 27, 2022, that the City of Hannibal violated Franke’s constitutional right of due process when it suspended him in January.

Bringer said in her order that home rule charter cities have the right to conduct impeachment proceedings against elected officials. She also noted Section 18.08(f) of the Hannibal City Charter says, “The rules of criminal procedure shall apply throughout the (impeachment) hearing.”

Shepherd wrote that provision referred to the Missouri Rules of Criminal Procedure, which provides for many protections for the accused in a hearing, including (but not limited to) the right to subpoena witnesses, the order of trial, discovery and the duty of the judge to provide written instructions to the jury.

Joe Bednar, an attorney with the Jefferson City firm of Spencer Fane LLP, said Hannibal city officials had not allowed Franke to examine many public documents, emails or texts, or interview potential witnesses against him. Shepherd ruled that was improper.

Franke’s motion to dismiss, filed April 14 by Bednar, stated, “The City of Hannibal willfully failed to comply with the City Charter’s requirement to follow the rules of criminal procedure, as well as Judge Rachel Bringer Shepherd’s order to comply with Missouri Rules of Criminal Procedure in the impeachment process.”

The motion said city officials did not comply with court orders this year on Jan. 4, Jan. 12 and Feb. 17, requiring discovery and procedural orders to comply with the Missouri Rules of Criminal Procedure. Franke also said they did not fulfill his request for discovery filed on February 11, 2022. 

Franke argued in his motion that the city refused to produce required records from all potential witnesses of an incident identified in an email from Zerbonia, which Franke said was written by Special Prosecutor Nicole Volkert. The email advised Hannibal City Council, Hark, Peck and various department heads that Franke had a right to request text messages from their phones or emails from their business or personal email account. The email stated they had a duty to preserve the records for at least three years. 

Franke’s motion cited a failure by the city to keep Zerbonia’s phone in working condition so it could be searched for text messages related to his impeachment. Zerbonia is currently on paid administrative leave from employment with the city because of accusations of a hostile workplace. 

Franke’s motion also said First Ward council member Darrell McCoy, a potential juror at the impeachment hearing, refused to produce his phone for examination, claiming he did have text messages regarding Franke’s impeachment.

Neil Maune, another attorney for Franke, argued McCoy’s statement was contradicted by the text thread that was produced by Mayor Hark in which McCoy and Hark were discussing the case, which was provided prior to his response to Zerbonia. 

Jackson ruled the city’s failure to comply with the rules of criminal procedure was willful. The case was dismissed with prejudice, which restricts the city from refiling the case.

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