Bill would levy fine on all Sunshine violators

Current standard is too vague, Jones says.

DAVID A. LIEB • THE ASSOCIATED PRESS • FEBRUARY 11, 2009

Jefferson City — A Missouri lawmaker is proposing a $500 fine for officials who violate Missouri’s open-government laws — even if they do so unwittingly.
Newly revised legislation by Rep. Tim Jones would make it easier to assess penalties for breaking the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Currently, anyone found by a judge to have “knowingly” violated Missouri’s open meetings or records law can be fined up to $1,000, while those who “purposely” violate the law can face fines up to $5,000.

Jones said the “knowingly” standard is too vague and too hard to prove.

His revised bill, presented Tuesday to the House General Laws Committee, which he chairs, would allow fines up to $500 for Sunshine Law violations regardless of whether they are made “knowingly.” Fines for purposeful violations would increase to $8,000.

“There’s not going to be Sunshine Law police that now run around the state and fine people,” Jones said. But “we now have some real teeth in the bill.”

Jones described his legislation as “strict liability for technical violations” of the Sunshine Law.

That’s something Missouri lawmakers historically have been reluctant to adopt.

Legislators last broached the subject in 2004, when they considered lowering the legal threshold for penalties from purposeful to negligent violations. They backed off the negligent standard under resistance from several senators and the Missouri Municipal League, which argued the lower standard could have deterred people from serving on volunteer boards.

The legislature in 2004 instead adopted the current two-tiered level of knowing and purposeful violations for determining fines.

Missouri Municipal League executive director Gary Markenson said Tuesday that he remains opposed to striking the “knowing” requirement to levy fines for Sunshine Law violations.

But some local government officials testified in support of the legislation.

Among those was Jay Purcell, a Cape Girardeau County commissioner who has sued his own commission for allegedly holding improper closed meetings.

“Without strong language that puts teeth and repercussions for public governmental bodies, they will not follow the law,” Purcell testified to the House committee. The legislation “sends a clear, clear message that ignorance of the Sunshine Law is not acceptable.”

Other sections of the bill would make public more records of the Missouri Ethics Commission; narrow the lawsuit-discussion justification for closing meetings; apply the Sunshine Law to newly elected public officials who have not yet taken the oath of office; and require meeting minutes to contain accurate descriptions of all discussions.

Markenson and Todd Smith, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Counties, both criticized the expanded requirement for meeting minutes. Smith said it could force two county commissioners carpooling to take minutes of their discussion if they happen to hit a pothole and remark that they should make sure it gets fixed.

Under current law, public entities must give 24 hours’ notice before meetings. The legislation would expand that to five days’ notice for city or county meetings where the agenda includes discussion of tax or fee increases, eminent domain, zoning or the creation of special districts that can either impose taxes or receive tax breaks.

That provision drew support from representatives of a labor union and retailers, who said cities sometimes consider development incentives with just 24 hours notice for the public while providing much greater notice to the developers pitching proposals.

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