Citizens across Missouri call for stronger Sunshine Law

By Virginia Young
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH JEFFERSON CITY BUREAU CHIEF
02/11/2009

JEFFERSON CITY — From Brentwood to Cape Girardeau to Rolla, citizens who have battled for more openness at City Hall urged legislators Tuesday to strengthen the state’s Sunshine Law.

The witnesses told a House committee that current law provides inadequate notice of public meetings, especially when private land is being taken for commercial development. They also argued for tougher penalties, clearer record-keeping provisions and a right to electronic copies of public records.

“Elected officials should be trying to find ways to conduct business in the open, not to find ways to close things,” said Jay C. Purcell, a county commissioner in Cape Girardeau County.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said problems at the local level had spurred the proposed changes in the Open Meetings and Records Law.

For example, some municipalities have called meetings on 24 hours’ notice — the minimum time required by law — to approve developers’ plans in St. Louis County. Jones’ bill would require five days’ notice if the agenda included subjects such as tax increases, eminent domain or tax-increment financing.

Another change would require newly elected officials to abide by the Sunshine Law even before they were sworn in. If they met with other officials and the group constituted a quorum, the meeting would be open under Jones’ bill.

Officials who violated the law could be fined up to $500, even if the violation was unintentional. Those who purposely violated the law could be fined up to $8,000.

Under current law, those who “knowingly” violate the law can be fined up to $1,000. Those who “purposely” violate it can face fines ranging up to $5,000.

The bill also would open up the complaints filed with Missouri Ethics Commission. However, investigative reports would remain closed during an inquiry and would be permanently closed if the complaint was dismissed.

Former Ethics Commissioner John Maupin, of Creve Coeur, supported the bill. He said current restrictions made it impossible for commissioners to confirm the status of complaints and “allowed people to abuse the system.”

Groups representing local officials say the bill goes too far.

Gary Markenson, a lobbyist for the Missouri Municipal League, objected to requiring five days’ notice for meetings and lowering the threshold for fines when violations are unintentional.

Opponents also said small towns lacked the staff to compile detailed accounts of their meetings. If minutes must be written up every time two of the three county commissioners ride together in a car, “you’re going to require them to drive individually or have someone taking notes,” said Todd Smith, a lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Counties.

Jones said the House General Laws Committee, which he heads, would fine-tune the bill before sending it to the House floor for debate.

The bill is HB316.

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