The Missouri Sunshine Law may soon include provisions to make the decades-old regulations applicable in today’s world of e-mail and teleconferencing.
Attorney General Jay Nixon worked with state Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, to add these provisions in an amendment called the Sunshine Upgrade Act. They announced the act Tuesday in Columbia and expect it to be debated in Missouri’s next legislative session, which begins in January.
The proposed act focuses on closing loopholes in the Sunshine Law created by the advent of e-mail, teleconferencing, and other technology that was unavailable when the law was written almost 30 years ago.
“It’s in the best interest of government to make sure the Sunshine Law will keep pace with technology,” Nixon said. “We do not want computers to be a nook to hide in.”
Under the bill, any e-mail correspondence between the majority of the members of a public body would be sent to the custodian of records and made public. Although this would not open all e-mails written by government officials to the public, it would require that e-mails of a public policy nature be available. In the case of a dispute over which e-mails are public or private, a judge would make that determination.
In an effort to save money and make records more accessible, the proposed bill would also allow government bodies to e-mail information in response to an e-mail request for it.
New technology also poses a threat to open records by allowing public officials to vote via an “e-mail tree.” By doing so the public officials never actually have to meet and therefore do not have to reveal the contents of the meeting.
“Conducting a meeting via e-mail is no different than meeting behind closed doors,” Harris said. The proposed bill would ban such practices and require any public officials who plan to hold a virtual meeting to post notice on their Web site as well as the currently required physical notice.
A 2001 audit of 152 public bodies by the Missouri State Auditor’s Office revealed that even when electronic communication is not an issue, Sunshine Law compliance is somewhat sketchy. The survey found that public bodies took an average of 31 days to respond to records requests regarding closed meetings, while the law allows only three days. Fifty-seven of the public bodies did not respond at all until receiving either follow-up letters or phone calls.
Nixon said most violations of the Sunshine Law are not malicious but simply a result of not knowing its details.
“Ignorance exceeds craftiness but crafty people are very good at acting ignorant, “ Nixon said.