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Missouri lawmakers seek to increase Sunshine Law fines

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | 6:10 p.m. CST; updated 6:38 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 10, 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, R-Eureka, 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 "knowingly" 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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Comments

Robert WitbolsFeugen February 16, 2009 | 9:08 p.m.

It has never been in the the plaintiff's interest to bear the burden of proving the intentions of the governmental entity. If the goal is to obtain a record or ascertain the fairness or legality of an action, which resulted from closed meeting discussions, then the accountability is always shared unless someone objected to the action.

The real factor that would change the course of most Sunshine Litigation cases and whether it is more prudent to provide rather than withhold a record, is a fine that would escalate at the rate of $100 per day for any improperly withheld record requested under the Sunshine Law.

(Report Comment)
Robert WitbolsFeugen February 16, 2009 | 9:16 p.m.

All fines collected must be put in a fund to support free access to records properly requested under the Sunshine Laws.

The Missouri Ethics Commission must publicly release the records on any case that it adjudicates as an ethical violation.

(Report Comment)
philis brown November 10, 2010 | 11:31 p.m.

I'd like to locate Mt. WitbolsFeugen. Jackson County is a threat to us all and everyone needs to believe this. They are not abiding by laws concerning privacy and are in the practice of giving out enough information to easily steal identities. In a letter from them I received justifying this practice,they stated "The Privacy Act is a federal law that restricts the federal goverment on what information it may disclose, however there is no equivalent law in missouri that applies to county goverments" Are they stupid or do they think we are?? They are in the branch of goverment that enforces the laws regarding the safegaurding of our person information.
Did they pass the constitution in 8th grade? Unfortunately the City of Blus Springs has recently gone into many closed sessions. Maybe they dont want the people informed about recent
EPA violations concerning the clean water act. Apparantly fines are cheaper than the construction necessary to comply. Adams Dairy parkway has disadvantages as well as conviences.
Or the closed meeting could be about the loss of over $125,000.oo dollars of the taxpayers money in escrow on a recent attempt to aquire land. Its only discussed in closed meetings. I only know because I'm a member of the recipient's organization.
I would like to speak with Mr. WitbolsFeugen if anyone could
pass this on to him. Although I could attempt to aquire his information on the Jackson County website. Even though I don't need all that info they are posting such as credit card and banking account numbers, ssn numbers, ect. If anyone wants to know how to access this "legal" service, please contact me at: pen4235@comcast.net and please pass this on to Mr. WitbolsFeugen so you could contact me. Thanks.

(Report Comment)

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