Missouri legislation would expand open records law

Thursday, January 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Some state lawmakers are seeking to strengthen Missouri's open-government law by giving the public greater notice of meetings on hot-button local issues such as taxes, zoning and eminent domain.

The legislation also would make public more of the workings of the Missouri Ethics Commission, which now operates largely in secret as it decides campaign finance complaints against politicians.

Those involved in defending and promoting Missouri's Sunshine Law said the legislation hits many of the areas that are causing problems but stops short of a broader overhaul they argue is necessary but unlikely to clear the legislature.

"It goes after some things that are clearly in need of addressing," said Charles Davis, executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "What I like about it is that it lines up some things that might just happen."

Creating local oversight

Sponsoring Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said Wednesday that he spent the last year working with House members to develop the bill, which he filed along with 18 cosponsors.

Jones, whose nonpolitical career as a lawyer depends on searching information and obtaining public records, said his legislation focuses on local governments because they tend to have less oversight than a state Capitol filled with lobbyists and interests groups checking on what politicians are doing.

"There's a lot of checks and balances at the state level," he said. "At the municipal level it's simply more casual."

The bill would narrow the definition for when public meetings can be closed to discuss potential litigation.

It also would require public comment periods and five business days' notice -- instead of the current 24 hours -- for governmental bodies to meet on issues such as tax increases, zoning and eminent domain. Governments would be barred from taking a vote on such issues for 30 days if they don't give enough notice.

The intent, Jones said, is to allow "the most transparency possible without negatively affecting the process."

Document rules

The legislation also would require that governmental bodies provide electronic versions of public records if they are maintained that way.

Davis said that's a significant change because many government bodies have tried to thwart access to records by driving up the price. For documents maintained on computers, the government bodies have printed off a paper copy -- charging 10 cents per page -- rather than turning over a computer disk.

The concern for municipal governments is cost and the practicality of the requirements.

The Missouri Municipal League, which represents city and town governments, said the law needs to provide for recouping the expense of providing public documents.

Gary Markenson, the group's executive director, said that the electronic record requirements could be burdensome for small communities and the mandatory public comment opportunities could pose problems for big ones.

That's because many large cities use committees to accept public testimony while debating taxes, zoning and other controversial decisions. But public discussion during full city council meetings is limited.

Jones' measure also would open more proceedings of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

The six-member commission investigates complaints of campaign finance laws and other public integrity rules. The commission currently cannot confirm whether it has launched investigations or held hearings, and inquiry records are closed. Only the final decisions are publicized, and generally not until several days later.

Under Jones' measure, investigation reports could be closed only if a complaint is dismissed, and hearings would be open to the public, though the deliberations by commission members could still be done behind closed doors.

Ethics Commission Executive Director Julie Allen said Wednesday that she has not yet read the legislation and declined to comment.

Largely left out of the legislation is one of the biggest state open records issues in recent years: a dispute over e-mail records that prompted a state investigation and lawsuits against then-Gov. Matt Blunt's office.

The case hinged on which government e-mails are records that must be kept and which can be deleted. Jones' bill doesn't take on that issue and avoids whether those requesting public documents can be charged to have attorneys review them to decide if the records must be disclosed.

Blunt's office, after receiving Sunshine Law requests for e-mail records, sought to charge for the time spent by attorneys to review which records could be withheld. Two court-appointed lawyers picked to pursue a state lawsuit against the governor's office suggested that the Legislature address that.

Sunshine Law is HB316

On the Net:

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

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