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New bill would stiffen Sunshine law

Thursday, February 14, 2008 | 10:27 p.m. CST; updated 9:44 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — An attorney general candidate wants to stiffen the state’s Sunshine Law by increasing fines, clarifying that e-mails are open records and requiring government officials to show why documents are closed.

Rep. Jeff Harris said Thursday the changes are needed to protect Missourians’ right to know what their government is doing.

One of the provisions of a bill authored by Harris would require the retention of e-mails pertaining to public business that are sent by computer or by mobile devices such as a cell phone, Palm Pilot or BlackBerry.

“There have been some problems with the governor’s administration in regard to e-mails, and I’m clarifying — making it doubly clear — that under the Sunshine Law, communications done through mobile communication devices are public records,” said Harris, D-Columbia.

The issue of whether e-mails are public records arose after Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration last year acknowledged it routinely destroys some e-mails. Former staff attorney Scott Eckersley has filed a lawsuit against the governor and other top aides, claiming he was fired after warning that destroying the e-mails is illegal. Blunt has said Eckersley was fired for misusing state resources.

In his suit, Eckersley says Blunt’s administration communicated by BlackBerry in an effort to avoid turning over documents in response to open records requests.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Harris’s bill is political posturing and Blunt has already ordered every e-mail in his administration to be retained. Last month, the governor approved a $2 million plan to archive government e-mails.

“The governor is interested in any effort that would increase openness and transparency in state government,” said spokeswoman Jessica Robinson.

Others in government, including staff for Attorney General Jay Nixon, also have said they delete some e-mails but deny violating the Sunshine Law.

E-mails are considered public records just like paper documents. But the state’s document retention policies allow some records to be disposed of sooner than others, depending on their nature.

Among the attorney general’s responsibilities is enforcing the state open meetings and public records law.

Harris is one of several Democrats who plan to run for attorney general. The other candidates, Harrisonville Sen. Chris Koster and St. Louis Rep. Margaret Donnelly, have each proposed legislation that would require electronic tracking of some products used to make methamphetamine.

Harris’ legislation would create the presumption that documents are open to the public and leave it to the attorney general to determine whether the document falls under the state Sunshine Law.

The legislation also would make it easier to punish violators while increasing the fine. Under current law, the maximum fine is $1,000 for those who “knowingly” break the Sunshine Law. Those who “purposely” do it can get a $5,000 fine.

Harris wants to make the fine $5,000 for all violations while lowering the standard to cover those who “purposely, negligently or recklessly” break the law. He said that wouldn’t cover every potential violation but would allow fines for people who should have known better.

He also plans to file legislation that would require people seeking to learn the confidential sources of reporters to first get a court order.

For several years lawmakers have filed bills seeking to create a so-called “shield law” that would require a circuit judge to weigh the public interest, relevancy and accessibility of the information and any alternatives to compelling journalists to reveal their sources.

The House last year approved a similar proposal, but Koster was among multiple senators who killed it in the Senate.


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