Bill would require Sunshine Law training for Mo. public officials

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A House member said Tuesday that all the state's public officials should get special training about state open meetings and public documents requirements.

Rep. Jeff Roorda's bill is modeled after Texas legislation that went into effect in 2006. And at least two other states have enacted or are debating whether to require open meetings and documents training.

The training would be handled by the Attorney General's office and would cover how to comply with the Sunshine Law and warn of the penalties for violations. It could be done in person or remotely and would need to be completed within 90 days of taking the oath of office or beginning to perform official duties.

"A public official needs to know the basics," said Doug Crews, the Missouri Press Association's executive director.

No one is sure how many people would need to be trained, but it's estimated to be tens of thousands. The attorney general's office last year trained 1,570 people in the law.

The office has responded to 239 inquiries about the Sunshine Law last year but expects the final number for 2007 to be closer to 400, said one of the three lawyers in the office responsible for the Sunshine Law.

About half of those inquiries are complaints about violations of the law, said attorney James Klahr.

Those numbers prompted some committee members to question whether the problem was severe enough to create training requirements that could make it harder to convince people to volunteer to serve on municipal board and commissions.

"I wonder if this is a reaction to a few high-profile cases and not a statewide epidemic," said Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City.

Roorda, D-Barnhart, said he regularly sees audits pointing out Sunshine Law violations.

One of those cases involved the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. Two years ago, the Chesterfield-based agency met for minutes in the governor's office to approve without comment a a plan suggested by Gov. Matt Blunt to sell its assets.

Attorney General Jay Nixon later sued MOHELA, alleging that before the vote, several board members held a series of one-on-one phone conversations to discuss the plan.

Missouri Municipal League Executive Director Gary Markenson said small "technical" violations of the state Sunshine Law aren't uncommon while major ones happen less often. He characterized not responding to document requests on time, casual conversations between two members of a three-member board about public business as "technical" errors.

Markenson said the mandatory training would help educate the people making these errors.

Rep. Mike Sutherland said he's torn about whether to require training. A former journalist, he said he's seen firsthand that some government bodies, especially those in small towns, don't always know what the Sunshine Law requires them to do. But Sutherland, R-Warrenton, said it's already hard to recruit people to government bodies and said training requirements could make that more difficult.

The bill doesn't establish any penalties for officials who do not go through the training. Several committee members said they thought there needed to be something to persuade people to get the training.

Klahr suggested that they could use the same system as the one requiring police departments to give racial-profiling statistics to the attorney general. Departments that miss the reporting deadline can lose grant money distributed by the Department of Public Safety.

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Sunshine training is HB1440.

On the Net:

Legislature: http://www.moga.mo.gov

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