Proposed Sunshine Law revisions would clarify violations, decrease penalties

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | 6:19 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The Senate General Laws Committee heard testimony Tuesday on a bill that would make changes to Missouri's open records law, commonly known as the Sunshine Law.

The hearing comes a month after Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich released a report showing that state and local government bodies have been routinely violating the law.

Missouri Press Association Executive Director Doug Crews was at the hearing and called these changes to the Sunshine Law "baby steps." 

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who said the bill would affect all local and state government agencies. 

Schaefer said the auditor's report showed there are still violations of the Sunshine Law throughout the state and that this is an attempt to do something about it.

"The bottom line is we need more transparency in quasi-governmental entities," he said.

Another major change would revise penalties for Sunshine Law violations. Currently, a "knowing" violation involves a civil penalty of up to $1,000. Under the bill, fines would be lessened to $100 and the "knowing" aspect would be removed. Jean Maneke, a representative for the Missouri Press Association, told the committee that many times, public bodies just aren't aware they are violating the law.

"It seems like if this were treated more like a traffic ticket than a major penalty type infraction, then perhaps there would be more instances where they would call it to the public attention that they think the law has been violated," Maneke said. 

Richard Sheets, deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, was the only person to testify against the Sunshine Law changes during the hearing. He said removing the "knowing" part of the clause could overburden small cities. 

Schaefer also said the bill further defines what an agency can charge someone who makes an open records request. The bill would clarify that a person can be charged research time to locate the records but cannot be charged fees to determine whether records are closed or open.

"Public governmental bodies are supposed to keep records in a way that segregates open records from closed records. They have an affirmative obligation to do that already," Schaefer said. "So when they get a request it's already established what's opened and what's closed."

Schaefer's measure also would:

  • Modify the definition of a public record.
  • Specify who may attend closed meetings.
  • Require that minutes reflect closed meeting discussions while not disclosing properly closed records.
  • Extend the expiration on closing meetings relating to Homeland Security operations.
  • Shift the burden of proof in Sunshine Law suits to the government agency.
  • Require 48 hours notice before a meeting except for the General Assembly, which would still be allowed to only provide 24 hours notice for its hearings and meetings.

The committee provided no timetable for when they would take a vote on the proposal. It needs an affirmative vote in the General Laws Committee before moving to the Senate floor.

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