Sunshine Law compliance a mixed bag

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The latest review of compliance with the state Sunshine Law by public bodies yielded good news and bad news, State Auditor Claire McCaskill said.

McCaskill's audit, released Monday, focused on how public bodies handle closed meetings.

"The good news is we found decent compliance concerning notification of closed meetings," McCaskill said. "The bad news is there are still a lot of public officials who do not understand their obligations under the open meetings laws."

Auditors reviewed the closed meeting practices of 152 public bodies. All but 38, or 25 percent, properly posted the general topics to be discussed in closed session and recorded members votes as required by law.

However, 50 percent of those reviewed could not prove that notice of the intent to hold a closed meeting was publicly posted. The statute stipulates that 24 hours notice is required in order to hold a closed meeting.

Of the 11 Southeast Missouri entities reviewed, only the Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents and Sikeston City Council fully complied with auditors' request for information.

Of the remaining nine, Campbell and Holcomb city councils and the Sikeston and Arcadia Valley school districts were cited solely for being unable to prove closed meetings were posted in advance.

The report says failure to disclose meeting topics was the lone violation of the Cape Girardeau County library board.

Five others -- the Cape Girardeau Public Library board, Ste. Genevieve County Commission, Ste. Genevieve Soil and Water Conservation District, Hayti school board and Holcomb City Council -- could not prove advance notice and also failed to document the topics of closed meetings or votes taken therein.

Cape Girardeau librarian Betty Martin said any violations of the law were inadvertent and that steps have been taken to be in full compliance in the future. She said the library board typically goes into closed session only once a year for the purpose of evaluating her performance.

"I am trying to educate the board and myself better about the Sunshine Law," Martin said. "We will be very careful in the future."

The Sunshine Law allows meetings to be closed only for certain purposes: Pending litigation, real estate deals, personnel and, in regard to school boards, actions involving individual students.

The audit found that in a half- dozen cases, public entities discussed matters that should have been handled in full public view. But because many bodies did not keep minutes of closed session, McCaskill said it was difficult to accurately gauge how many were improperly discussing topics not covered by the law's limited open meeting exemptions.

This audit was the third McCaskill has done in recent years to gauge compliance with various aspects of the Sunshine Law.

One result McCaskill found troubling was the amount of time it took bodies to respond to her office's record request. The law requires entities to respond within three days. Especially when dealing with requests made by mail, however, McCaskill said she deems responses made within 10 days to be timely.

Only a handful of agencies reviewed responded that quickly, with the average response time being 31 days. The range was from one to 171 days.

Those who didn't respond to auditors' initial written requests were sent a second letter. A follow up phone call was made to those who still didn't respond.

McCaskill said public bodies need to do a better job of acting in a timely manner.

"Responding to citizens' requests is the most important job they have. That is who they worked for," McCaskill said.

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Public entities in Southeast Missouri surveyed by the State Auditor's Office on compliance with closed meeting provisions of the state Sunshine Law and the days it took them to respond:

Entity Full Response
Arcadia Valley school boardNo8 days
Campbell City CouncilNo2
Cape Girardeau City LibraryNo3
Cape Girardeau County LibraryNo3
Hayti school boardNo2
Holcomb City CouncilNo2
Ste. Genevieve CountyNo128

Ste. Genevieve Soil

& Water DistrictNo24
Sikeston City CouncilYes90
Sikeston school boardNo17
SEMO Board of RegentsYes21

Source: Missouri State Auditor's Office

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