Law: Council e-mail is a public record

Sunday, September 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:41 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

An ordinance introduced to the City Council would amend the city’s open records and meetings statute, prohibiting discussion of city business through group e-mails, city attorney Fred Boeckmann said.

Boeckmann said he has recommended that city officials refrain from sending group e-mails to one another to discuss business because the city does not have the technology to allow open access to those discussions.

The Missouri General Assembly amended the state’s Sunshine Law last session to stipulate that discussions conducted through electronic mediums like group e-mails are open public meetings and that officials must allow access to those meetings.

The proposed city ordinance would amend Chapter 2 of the city code to comply with other changes made to the Sunshine Law, including:

  • Allowing any person to record an open public meeting by audiotape, videotape or other electronic means.
  • Setting the fee for copying public records and establishing custodians of records for all city offices.
  • Authorizing governmental bodies to close meetings and votes related to operational guidelines and policies when responding to or preventing terrorism.
  • Boeckmann described the changes as “housekeeping” measures that will clarify issues for city government. The city already allowed audience members to record meetings, but the language was put in the ordinance to comply with the state law, he said.

“When they amend the Sunshine Law — and they’ve done it a couple times since I’ve been here — I usually prepare amendments to the city code so it’s consistent with the state law,” Boeckmann said.

Boeckmann said the convenience of e-mail can also cause sticky situations for members of city boards, councils and task forces. Because e-mails from one member can be forwarded to another, the boundaries for what is a public meeting and what is not are blurry.

The best bet for officials is to simply not discuss any business in any e-mails, he said.

“It’s no problem to share information,” the attorney said, “but when you start sharing dialogue, it becomes a meeting at some point.”

Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash said e-mail is a convenient way for members of the council to communicate with one another between meetings because council members have full-time jobs.

“It’s rare that we can all speak together,” Ash said.

He said that Boeckmann recently reminded the council about his recommendation when members were e-mailing one another and discussing whether to table ordinances dealing with rezoning around Green Meadows Road. He said he is worried that the provision might have some negative consequences.

“I don’t mind having council members’ e-mails be open records,” Ash said, “but I hope we don’t discourage the exchange of information.

“I hope we aren’t so concerned with the Sunshine Law that we don’t communicate with each other.”

City Manager Ray Beck said the new e-mail restrictions are intended to prohibit members of the city’s boards and commissions from e-mailing each other to discuss how they would vote on an issue. The city needs to make sure the members understand the law, he said.

“I think these are the issues we really need to educate people about,” Beck said. “We need to get the information out to our volunteers who serve on these boards and commissions.”

The council is set to vote on the proposed ordinance during Monday’s 7 p.m. meeting.

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