Letting the sunshine in

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Questions about how to conduct public meetings through Internet chat rooms or e-mail and whether those meetings are open to the public have long posed legal quandaries for school boards and city and county governing boards. But revisions to Missouri's Sunshine Law bring the statute into the technology age.

Revisions that took effect Aug. 28 make telephone or video conferencing and Internet meetings accessible to the public and create a 10-cent per page copying charge on requested records. The changes also require stiffer penalties for noncompliance with the law.

The Sunshine Law governing open meetings and records in the state serves as a tool that ensures government operates in public view, said Attorney General Jay Nixon.

Nixon and members of his staff talked about the changes in the law during a regional presentation Monday morning at Southeast Missouri State University. About 150 people attended the session, which drew city clerks, mayors, police, elected officials and the media from throughout Southeast Missouri.

Nancy Caldwell, a member of the Scott City school board, said simple misunderstandings can pose problems when it comes to the Sunshine Law. She said the board had a Sunshine Law scare several years ago when meeting in closed session. A janitor inadvertently locked the doors to the building, and that shut people out of the meeting.

Even after the mix-up was explained, Caldwell said, one man accused the board of acting in secret.

"You never really know what's going to come up," she said. "We were so innocent, but he blamed the board for not giving him access."

Questions like that come up at the attorney general's office all the time. It receives four calls each business day with questions about Sunshine Law provisions and requirements, Nixon said. Most don't require official opinions but do pose interesting scenarios.

In most cases, people want to get the maximum amount of information out to the public but are legitimately concerned about whether they'd be giving away private information by doing that, he said.

If people understand more about the Sunshine Law, "then we can all take a step toward transparency in our democracy," Nixon said.

Because technology is changing so much, not everyone is sure how to address issues of computer access, said James Klahr, an assistant attorney general. "There are questions that are raised by these changes, and we don't know all the answers yet."

A panel discussion based on a hypothetical meeting of a school board and its appointed subcommittee allowed the audience to talk about how the Sunshine Law works in practice, not just in theory.

Joe Russell, a Cape Girardeau lawyer who advises the city's public schools, asked whether the definition of a public body applies to appointed committees. "If the superintendent appoints a committee, are they subject to the Sunshine Law?" he asked.

That exact question has been posed to the attorney general by the Cape Girardeau County prosecutor. "The question is really, 'Is the superintendent a public body?'" said Paul Maguffee, an assistant attorney general. "I don't want to presuppose an answer."

Others asked about whether drafts of policies or ordinances were considered open records and how to handle documents that contained both open and closed records.

The Sunshine Law helps law-abiding citizens remain as such and makes sure that openness in public meetings is safeguarded, said Joe Sullivan, editor of the Southeast Missourian. Also speaking was Mayor Loyd Matthews of Poplar Bluff, Mo.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

NEW PROVISIONS

Several new provisions to Missouri's Sunshine Law took effect Aug. 28. The new provisions:

Make clear that meetings and votes conducted by phone, video conference or Internet are covered by the Sunshine Law.

Require, with certain exceptions, votes by elected bodies to be held with a quorum present in person.

Strengthen notice requirements for meetings held by electronic means, secures the public's right to audiotape and videotape open meetings, and requires public bodies to keep minutes of closed meetings.

Provide that a member of a public body who properly objects to a vote by the body to close a meeting, vote or record has a defense against claims for violation of the Sunshine Law.

Require records to be provided in the format requested if available.

Ensure that e-mails exchanged among a majority of a public body with four or more members, or among all members of a public body with three members, are open to the public, unless covered by a specific exception.

Clarify what public bodies can charge for search and copying and caps fees for standard copies at 10 cents per page.

Increase penalties for violations of the Sunshine Law.

SOURCE: www.ago.state.mo.us

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