Nixon, Koster voice support for stronger Sunshine Law

Thursday, February 19, 2009 | 7:03 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's governor and attorney general expressed support Thursday for strengthening the state's open government and meetings laws.

Gov. Jay Nixon said he backs legislation allowing penalties against all government officials who violate the Sunshine Law, regardless of whether they do so knowingly.

A bill pending in a House committee would repeal Missouri's requirement for a judge to determine a public official or entity "knowingly" violated the Sunshine Law before a fine can be issued. Instead, it would allow up to a $500 fine for any violation, with higher fines for purposeful violations.

As presented to the House committee last week, the legislation still would require a court to determine a "knowing violation" occurred for a governmental entity or official to be ordered to pay the attorney fees of whomever sued.

But Nixon said he also wants to make it easier for people who successfully prove Sunshine Law violations to recoup their attorney fees.

"If you put public officials and public bodies at risk for those fees, they're much more likely to err on the side of openness," Nixon told media gathered Thursday at the Governor's Mansion for the annual Associated Press and Missouri Press Association Day at the Capitol.

Nixon, a Democrat, praised Republican Rep. Tim Jones, of Eureka, for sponsoring the legislation. The bill also would require cities and counties to give more advance notice of meetings to discuss tax or fee increases, eminent domain and zoning.

"I hope it crosses my desk so I'll be able to sign it," Nixon said.

Before becoming governor last month, Nixon served 16 years as attorney general, where he had the power to enforce Missouri's open records and meetings laws.

His successor, Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster, told media Thursday that he has hired a staff person to focus solely on educating local government officials about the Sunshine Law.

Koster said he thinks the attorney general's office previously conducted about 15-20 presentations a year about the law. He said he wants to increase that to between 150 and 170 presentations annually.

"I'm real serious about trying to elevate the awareness of the Sunshine Law," Koster said.

One of the biggest gaps in the law, Koster said, "is that there is really not any penalties related for record-retention violations."

The retention of e-mails as public records gained attention over the past year-and-a-half after former Gov. Matt Blunt acknowledged that he and his staff routinely deleted some e-mails. As attorney general, Nixon launched an investigation into Blunt's e-mail practices. At the same time, Blunt ordered the state to install a computerized system to permanently store government e-mails.

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