Nixon- Schools' closed meetings illegal

Friday, December 3, 2004

Meetings of a task force formed last year to recommend budget cuts for the Cape Girardeau School District were subject to the state's Sunshine Law and therefore should have been open to the news media, an opinion by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon states.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle received Nixon's opinion Thursday.

Swingle's request for an opinion followed a November 2003 decision by the schools not to allow the media to attend the meetings of the task force superintendent Mark Bowles formed to make recommendations about cutting $2.2 million from the district's budget.

According to Bowles and the school district's attorneys, the meetings were not subject to the state's Sunshine Law -- which requires that, with some exceptions, the records, votes, actions, deliberations and meetings of public governmental bodies be open to the public -- because the task force was created by the superintendent and not the school board.

"From the beginning, the opinion of our attorneys has been that the superintendent is not a public governmental body," Bowles said. "We felt that in no way was the intention of the law to extend to the superintendent."

In Nixon's opinion, however, "a task force appointed by the Cape Girardeau School District's superintendent for the purpose of making budget proposals to the superintendent was a public governmental body within the meaning of the Sunshine Law so that meetings of the task force were subject to the requirements of the Sunshine Law."

The attorney general's opinion further states that the superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District "is a public governmental body as contemplated by Section 610.010(4)" of the Sunshine Law. In doing so, it cites a Missouri Court of Appeals ruling that a single person, in that case the St. Louis County executive, could constitute a governmental body.

Nixon's opinion is just that, an opinion and not a mandate. But, Swingle said, "It's important because when this issue would come up anywhere in the state, it's a precedent all parties can rely on while applying the law."

In the future, Swingle said, a similar situation could result in a civil suit with fines of up to $500 or a court injunction.

While Swingle agrees with Nixon's assessment that the task force meetings were subject to the Sunshine Law, he thinks the schools' decision to exclude the media from the meetings was a misinterpretation of an unclear part of the law rather than bad intent on the part of the school district.

"Any time you write a broad law like the Sunshine Law, there are gray areas," Swingle said. He said one of the good things about opinions such as Nixon's is that they fill in those gray areas.

Bowles did not want to comment directly on Nixon's opinion without discussing it with the district's attorneys. But he said Nixon's opinion "does not carry with it the force of any statute or anything else."

335-6611, extension 182

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