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House bills could strengthen Missouri Sunshine Law

Friday, February 26, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Sunshine Law is finding itself under criticism from lawmakers who call it "ineffective" in its current state. Rep. Timothy Jones, R-St. Louis County, proposed two bills to tighten Sunshine Law provisions on local officials to the General Laws Committee this week.

Jones' primary bill concerned open meetings and records. Ten provisions are suggested through the legislation. The changes require that:

  • All records of the Missouri Ethics Commission remain public after a decision is made on a complaint. The commission can still suppress records following a request if it deems it necessary.
  • Minutes of closed meetings must include a summary of discussions that occurred, but not a disclosure of records or votes.
  • Members of the governmental bodies, their attorneys and assistants, and any necessary witnesses will be permitted in closed meetings.
  • Electronic copies of information must be given to the public if kept electronically.
  • Each person found guilty of violating the Sunshine Law will be subject to a fine of up to $8,000 thousand for a "purposeful violation" or a $1,000 fine for "knowingly" violating the law. The higher fine requires a higher burden of proof.
  • Any governing body has to give the public five days notice before meeting to discuss taxing, zoning, transportation development districts, capital improvement districts and eminent domain issues to allow for public comment period.
  • Each elected or appointed official must attend atraining session, lasting between one and two hours, regarding their responsibilities pertaining to the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Stan Berry, editor of the "Daily American Republic" in Poplar Bluff, testified before the committee on Tuesday, citing his own struggle with intentional violations of the law.

His newspaper spent approximately $98,000 in legal fees suing school board officials from his area for violating the law. Following the legal battle, only two officials were charged in violation and received small fines of $250 and $150.

Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association, also testified in favor of the bill.

"Newspapers are footing the bill and the violators are only receiving minuscule fines," Crews said. "The law just doesn't have any teeth."

The St. Louis County Municipal League's Executive Director, Tim Fischesser, voiced his concerns about what he called a complicated piece of legislation.

"There are thousands of local elected officials across Missouri, most of which are just trying to serve their community," Fischesser said.

He also cited distaste for larger fines and mandating training on the law. He said his league offers training over the complicated law and doesn't think a two-hour training would do officials any good.

"This legislation will discourage people from serving their community because it's just becoming too complicated," Fischesser said.

As a backup to his first piece of legislation, Jones also proposed a bill that concerns itself with only notice requirements for public meetings and reads much lighter than the second bill. If the bill passes, each governmental body would be mandated to give the public a four-day notice before meeting over taxing, zoning, transportation development districts, capital improvement districts and eminent domain.

Both bills remain in the House General Laws Committee.


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