Posted tagged ‘Missouri Sunshine Law’

Bill would levy fine on all Sunshine violators

February 11, 2009

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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Citizens across Missouri call for stronger Sunshine Law

February 11, 2009

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.

Mayor requests Sunshine reading

February 6, 2009

The St. Joseph City Council met behind closed doors in December with the city manager and a representative of the state auditor’s office to discuss the state of St. Joseph’s finances.
The mayor asked a St. Joseph News-Press reporter to read out loud the Missouri Sunshine Law provision that allowed the meeting to be closed. He said he asked for the reading so council members could explain the reasoning to citizens who were concerned that the meeting was not open.
Todd Schuler, an audit manager for the state auditor’s office, said he would not discuss the audit unless the council voted to close the meeting.
All but two of the council members and the mayor voted to close the meeting, at which point the reporter and another visitor left the room. One council member abstained from voting, another was absent.
—St. Joseph News-Press