JEFFERSON CITY — Under a new bill proposed by Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, any public governmental meeting conducted through electronic communication — conference call, video conference, Internet chat or Internet message board — would have to be made accessible to the public.
Missouri’s open meetings and access to public records laws constitute what is known as the Sunshine Law. Harris’ bill aims at broadening the Sunshine Law.
The bill has bipartisan support in the House, and similar measures have been proposed by Senate Republicans. Chair of the Judiciary Committee Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, complimented Harris on the proposed measure.
Because of the changes in technology, Harris said, there has been a change in the way the government does business.
“We need to make sure that the Sunshine Law is updated and upgraded to reflect those changes in technology and to take into account those changes in the way that public government bodies can do business,” Harris said during a House Judiciary Committee public hearing Wednesday.
Echoing Harris’ sentiments was counsel for the Missouri Press Association, Jean Maneke, who testified in support of the proposed changes.
“Technology has changed in the last few years such that public officials are now using the Internet to communicate, whether it is by e-mail or by using some chat room software,” Maneke said. “All of these are areas that the current Sunshine Law is somewhat vague on and I think there is a real need to tighten up that language.”
No one voiced opposition to the bill.
Under the bill, if government officials are voting by telephone or e-mail, the public must be allowed access to that vote. Also, the government would have to notify the public of the mode by which the meeting is to be conducted .
The legislation specifically spells out that anyone must be allowed to record a public meeting by audiotape, videotape or other electronic means.
“But it won’t be a free-for-all,” Harris said. “It is within the discretion and guidance of the public body as to how those meetings will be taped.”
The bill also allows public bodies to respond by e-mail or any other electronic means if the request for records was made in the same format.
Charles Davis, an MU journalism professor and the director of Freedom of Information Center, said that such a reform was long overdue given the dramatic change in the way the government functions now. He said he is optimistic about the proposed reforms in this area.
“I hope that it passes,” he said.