JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Government officials in Missouri could be required to give more notice before holding public meetings and face a greater likelihood of penalties for violations of the state’s open meetings and records law under a bill pending in the state Senate.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, the bill’s sponsor, says the changes would update and strengthen the so-called Sunshine Law. The legislation, considered this week by a Senate committee, also would renew an expired open records exemption that has shielded security documents from disclosure.
The Sunshine Law currently allows fines of up to $1,000 against officials or governmental bodies who “knowingly” violate it. Someone raising a complaint about a violation must show the governmental body is required to comply with the law and that the meeting or record was closed. The government then must demonstrate it complied with the law.
The legislation would reduce the fines to $100 but no longer require that violations were “knowing.” The government also would shoulder the burden of proving a meeting, record or vote could be closed to the public. When a complaint about a Sunshine Law violation is sustained, the courts would be required to order the government to pay the complainant’s attorney fees. Judges currently have the option of ordering attorney fees.
Schaefer said many Sunshine Law cases are not pursued because it is difficult to prove a knowing violation. He said the legislation would strengthen and update the law.
“You have repeat offenders that never get those violations established,” said Schaefer, R-Columbia. “If you shift that burden and basically make it like a ticket it’s a $100 fine and every time there is a violation, there is an established violation on the record.”
Most governmental bodies in Missouri also would need to give 48 hours notice before their meetings instead of the current 24 hours. The Legislature, however, would still provide 24 hours notice.
Organizations representing cities and counties have raised concerns.
Richard Sheets, the deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, said additional notice before meetings could pose administrative challenges. He also questioned whether cities should be required to pay attorney fees for unintentional, minor violations.
The Missouri Association of Counties said it also objects to requiring a fine for an unwitting violation.
“If someone knowingly violates it, the judge can sit there and determine what the penalty is going to be,” said Todd Smith, a former Republican lawmaker and county commissioner who lobbies for the organization. “This removes that, and this is someone unknowingly, inadvertently. I mean people are human; they make mistakes.”
The Missouri Press Association and the Missouri Broadcasters Association each support the legislation.
Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said there have been attempts for years to encourage attentiveness to the Sunshine Law by increasing the financial penalty.
“That theory doesn’t seem to be working,” she said. “I think there needs to be a smaller penalty that’s a strict liability situation.”
In addition, the legislation would encourage public record custodians to keep an index of the public records maintained by that agency. It would reduce agencies’ ability to close discussions that are related to a “cause of action” by requiring that the governmental body to have evidence a lawsuit has been filed or will be filed.
Schaefer’s proposal also would continue through 2017 two exemptions to the Sunshine Law that expired at the end of 2012. One covered operational guidelines and policies developed by law enforcement, public safety, first response or public health authorities for preventing and responding to terrorism incidents. The other dealt with security systems and structural plans for property owned or leased by a government agency. It included information submitted by private entities for governmental agencies to develop plans for protecting infrastructure.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Nixon called for renewing the exemptions during news conferences that included numerous law enforcement officials.
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