Missouri housing agency to redo secret vote on ethics

Thursday, December 2, 2010 | 5:58 p.m. CST; updated 10:36 a.m. CST, Friday, December 3, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — A Missouri agency that finances low-income housing developments plans to redo a vote on ethics policy changes that occurred in a meeting that was closed to the public.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that it raised concerns that the closed meeting by a subcommittee of the Missouri Housing Development Commission might have violated the state's open-meetings law. In response, agency director Margaret Lineberry told the paper that the subcommittee will meet again to vote on the ethics policy in a public session.

The commission's current ethics rules include a one-year ban on former employees seeking to influence the commission on behalf of private firms.

A commission subcommittee met privately Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit challenging the ethics policy by former employee Deb Giffin, who left state government in September 2009. Giffin and former agency director Pete Ramsel received e-mails from the commission's attorney in August suggesting they were violating the standards of conduct policy because they were working with developers on housing projects in Missouri less than a year after they left the agency.

During the closed meeting Tuesday, the subcommittee voted to send the full board a proposed revision to the ethics policy that includes some changes which appear to be in response to criticisms raised in the lawsuit.

Two experts on the state Sunshine Law said the closed meeting violated the Sunshine Law, which allows narrow exceptions to an open meeting requirement for discussing specific legal matters.

"The exception relates to specific legal entanglements, not drafting public policy that might have some relation to those entanglements," said Charles Davis, an associate  professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and former director of the National Freedom of Information Center.

Lineberry said the discussion of the ethics policy was done in a context of the criticisms made in the lawsuit, but it was not related to any settlement of that lawsuit. Because of that, said Kansas City lawyer Jean Maneke, the meeting was improper.

"If it was not part of a settlement discussion, then I think it should have been carved out of the closed session," said Maneke, a Sunshine Law expert who advises the Missouri Press Association.

Commission chairman Jeffrey Bay, who is on the subcommittee, said he supported the decision to meet again to redo the vote on the ethics policy. A meeting of the policy committee has been set for Dec. 15 in Kansas City.

"We're all kind of learning," Bay said. "We certainly didn't intend to do anything inappropriate."


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