Missouri lawmakers endorse Sunshine Law measures

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | 8:18 p.m. CST; updated 9:51 a.m. CST, Friday, February 15, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers endorsed separate measures Tuesday aimed at providing the public greater notice of government meetings and information about flights elected officials take.

The House and Senate gave first-round approval to bills focused on the open meetings and records law, commonly known as the Sunshine Law. The Senate legislation would require that most governmental bodies give notice 48 hours before meetings, instead of the current 24 hours. The House proposal would make records and flight logs pertaining to flights by lawmakers and statewide officials a public record after that trip. The Sunshine Law already allows access to records listing who flies on state airplanes, when trips occur and how much flights cost.

Both chambers' proposals also would reinstate two Sunshine Law exemptions that expired at the end of 2012. One covered operational guidelines and policies developed by law enforcement, public safety, first response or public health authorities for preventing and responding to terrorism incidents. Another dealt with security systems and structural plans for property owned or leased by a government agency. It included information submitted by private entities for governmental agencies to develop plans for protecting infrastructure.

The bills require another vote before moving to the other chamber.

Under the Senate legislation, the security exemptions would continue through 2017. In addition, the measure would reduce fines for Sunshine Law violations from up to $1,000 to $100 but no longer require that violations have been committed "knowingly." The government also would shoulder the burden of proving a meeting, record or vote should be closed to the public. Currently, complainants must show the governmental body is required to comply with the law and that the meeting or record was closed. The government then must demonstrate it complied.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon called for renewing the Sunshine Law's security exemptions during December news conferences with numerous law enforcement officials. He said allowing access to such records would be similar to giving burglars house keys or security alarm codes.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer said the support for shielding security plans could help to push through broader Sunshine Law changes.

"We have governmental entities around the state that routinely do not comply with the Sunshine Law, and we are going to keep adjusting that law until we find something that everyone is required to live with and make sure that they have public disclosure of information," Schaefer, R-Columbia, said.

Organizations representing cities and counties have raised concerns about some pieces in the Senate measure. They have argued mandating additional notice before meetings could pose administrative challenges and raised questions about fines for unintended Sunshine Law violations.

In the House legislation, the Sunshine Law exemptions would be permanent. Sponsoring Rep. Caleb Jones, a Republican from California, Mo., said there have been requests for school evacuation plans and the exemptions should not expire. Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the value of an expiration date is that it gives lawmakers an opportunity to review a law's effectiveness.

Part of the House debate Tuesday referenced on a new $5.6 million airplane purchased in December by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. In addition to specifically making flight records a public record, lawmakers considered but did not vote on an amendment that would have prevented use of the plane to transport executive branch officials or lawmakers except for public safety purposes.

There has been scrutiny over Nixon's use of state airplanes and his office's past practice of billing state departments for travel costs. Most recently, controversy in the legislature about the new Highway Patrol airplane led to a delay in confirming the appointment of the longtime aide who approved the purchase as commissioner of administration.

The Highway Patrol superintendent has said the new King Air 250 is needed because of high demand for flying time from state officials.

In addition, the House measure would exclude video recordings from cameras outside the governor's office from the Sunshine Law exemptions. In 2009, officials declined a request from the Springfield News-Leader to view surveillance tape amid controversy over the handling of bacteria test results from the Lake of the Ozarks. The Department of Public Safety cited one of the expired exemptions in denying the request.

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