Counties vary in Sunshine Law approach

Sunday, September 3, 2006

In August 2003, Randolph County, Mo., had a half-finished jail and a feuding county commission.

Allegations of decisions made in secret meetings -- an accusation with a familiar ring in Cape Girardeau County following a sharp exchange among county commissioners last week -- led to a special state audit and an investigation by the Missouri attorney general's office.

Voters have since replaced two of the three commissioners, and a new nine-page policy, developed with the attorney general's office, governs the county's compliance with the Sunshine Law.

Presiding Commissioner Jim Myles, a critic of past practices in the central Missouri county, said the changes have been healthy.

Putting the county in step with both the spirit and the letter of the law was "like pulling teeth," Myles said.

The policy requires the commission put off decisions on any matter that was brought to its attention less than 24 hours before a meeting unless an emergency demands action. To keep the public informed, all e-mails between commissioners are sent to the county clerk and kept for public viewing.

Myles has advice for commissioners in other counties -- make official actions clearly comply with the law or lose the trust of voters. "Do it yourselves and be committed to keeping the public informed with good agendas and good minutes before someone gets the attorney general and forces you to."

In Cape Girardeau County Commission, Commissioner Larry Bock accused his colleagues, Commissoner Jay Purcell and Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones, of holding private meetings.

Bock said Jones and Purcell met with leaders of the Cape Girardeau County Transit Authority and appointed an advisory committee without a formal commission vote.

On Thursday, Purcell proposed the commission study its compliance with the Sunshine Law, review policies from other counties and, if necessary, set a written policy.

The Sunshine Law directs public bodies to conduct business in the open unless taxpayers could be harmed by the result, such as in real estate or lawsuit discussions where openness could mean a costlier outcome.

Open meetings are required to have agendas that spell out what is to be discussed.

But in many counties, commissioners "sit" with informal agendas, taking up whatever business walks in the door. In Cape Girardeau County, agendas are more detailed but often provide little about what business a particular person coming before the commission wants to discuss.

There are extensive resources available to help counties stay within the law. The Missouri Association of Counties publishes a model compliance policy, said Dick Burke, executive director. The association offers annual training at its conferences, he said.

"We do our best to keep our folks updated on Sunshine Law requirements," he said.

Presiding Commissioner Jones is a past president of the association and a board member. He sought better compliance with the Sunshine Law in early 2004, a move that was rejected by Bock and then-commissioner Joe Gambill.

"Ultimately, it is the county's decision" how it conducts business, Burke said.

Randolph County is a third-class county, which puts it in the lowest tier of counties in terms of population and total property values. Cape Girardeau County is a first-class county, which is the highest tier.

Many first-class counties have detailed posting of commissioners' activities and agendas. Boone County, just south of Randolph County, posts on its Web site a list of meetings involving commissioners.

The weekly list includes any event where at least two commissioners are expected, said Boone County Commissioner Karen Miller. Those occasions could be a health board meeting or a social function, she said.

"I don't think any of us ever want anyone to say that they didn't get a chance to get in front of us to address a problem," she said.

During meetings, commissioners never take a final vote the first time an issue comes before them unless it is an emergency, Miller said.

"The first is when they come in and explain what they are asking for," she said. "The second time, that is the official action. It gives people time to come in and comment."

Boone County's methods have developed over time without any written policies, she said.

Other first-class counties aren't as extensive as Boone County, but many do post a weekly schedule for their commissioners. Greene County, which includes Springfield, lists only "administrative and department functions" spiced with specific scheduled meetings.

Franklin County, west of St. Louis, posts that the "county commission will perform general administrative duties as required" and adds specific times for advisory committees or activities such as a meeting of all elected officials and department heads.

Cape Girardeau County does not post a weekly schedule for the commissioners. Jones said he thinks posting advisories that commissioners will be attending functions other than commission meetings would be burdensome.

The commissioners attended the groundbreaking for the East Main Street interchange Thursday but did not formally post it. "That is stretching the point too far," Jones said. "I am going to a Farm Bureau meeting. Do we have to post it?"

And Purcell said he understands that changing current practices will take time. "It is going to take some work to establish some policies and the guidance, and there will be a learning curve," he said. "The bigger issue is building trust in county government, and that trumps all other concerns."

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