Bill aims at law on open records

Government employees who violate the law would pay stiffer penalties.
Friday, February 6, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A Senate committee backed a bill Thursday that could make it more affordable for people to access public records but more costly for government employees who violate the state’s Sunshine Law.

Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, said her legislation will “stiffen” the law on open records and meetings, although the committee’s version does not go as far as she initially proposed.

The bill is supported by the Missouri Press Association but opposed by the Missouri Municipal League, which contends that the the harsher penalties would make it more difficult to find volunteers for government boards and commissions.

The Sunshine Law is supposed to be “liberally construed” to open most government meetings, votes and records to the public. Yet the current law also requires a judge to determine someone “purposely” violated the law in order to impose a fine of up to $500.

That standard of proof is so high that only a few people have been penalized over the past 30 years, said Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association.

The legislation, as amended by the Senate Commerce and Environment Committee, would lower the threshold to violations “with gross negligence” — affecting people who unintentionally break the law but make little to no effort to understand it. Penalties in such cases could range from $25 to $1,000.

People proven to have purposefully violated the law could be fined between $1,000 and $5,000 under the bill.

Steelman, the committee chairwoman, initially proposed to lower the violation standard to simple “negligence” in all cases. Her revamped legislation will now go to the full Senate. The combination of the lower violation standard and higher fines could scare off thousands of volunteers who serve on city commissions, school boards and such things as water, sewer and fire districts, said Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League.

The bill would also place a 10 cents per page maximum on copying charges for public documents and limit fees for an employee’s searching time to the average hourly rate of the clerical staff.

Current law allows governmental bodies to charge the “actual cost” for copying and searching, leaving it to them to determine what is fair and reasonable.

The bill also would make public the names of private donors who supplement the salaries of the University of Missouri president or chancellors. That provision is a response to university president Elson Floyd’s attempt to enhance his chancellors’ salaries through private contributions. In addition, the bill would close security records submitted to the state by some private entities, such as AmerenUE’s nuclear power plant. State homeland security director Tim Daniel has raised concerns that, under current law, those records could be made public once they are shared with the state.

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