Attorney general stumps for upgraded Sunshine Law

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Missouri's top law enforcer on Tuesday backed a measure that would broaden the state's open meetings law to cover electronic records or gatherings involving public bodies, calling the upgrade long overdue in the age of cyberspace.

The Sunshine Law revision also would bar secret votes via telephone or computer, closing "cybernooks" where members of city councils or school boards could huddle "behind the privacy of their home computer screens" or in Internet chatrooms, Attorney General Jay Nixon said.

The Sunshine Upgrade Act would "remain in step with how the government works in this age," when a filing cabinet's worth of documents can be burned onto a couple of compact discs, Nixon said.

Legislation has "lagged behind technology in this area, but that doesn't mean the public needs to lag behind in getting information," Nixon said. "We want to have a law that has the same rules and regulations, whether (the public body's business) is done in person, by phone or on the computer."

Nixon, at appearances Tuesday in St. Louis, Hannibal and Columbia, said the plan would:

Require that e-mail correspondence between a majority of the members of a public body be given to the records' custodian and, when requested, be made available to the public.

Bar voting on public business by using telephone or e-mail "trees," bypassing a public meeting.

Allow a public body to respond to records requests in the format received. An example: A public body may respond to an e-mail request by e-mail, often more efficiently and cheaper because computers have made it easier to sort and access records.

Require that if a public body has a "virtual meeting" over the Internet, the body post a notice of that meeting on its Web site -- and a physical notice at its office.

"We believe this is about good government, about open government," said state Rep. Jeff Harris, a Columbia Democrat who expects to prefile the measure next month.

Charles Davis, executive director of the University of Missouri School of Journalism's Freedom of Information Center, said that site "stands ready to support any legislative proposal that advances the interest of open government, and we welcome this development."

"Access laws must be revised to address the age of the computer or risk obsolescence," he said.

Public agencies may close meetings for privileged communications with an attorney of discussions of employment status, real estate transactions or military-related matters.

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On the Net

University of Missouri's Freedom of Information Center: foi.missouri.edu

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