Missouri House advances expansion of Sunshine Law

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The House gave first-round approval Tuesday to a bill expanding Missouri's Sunshine Law but narrowly defeated an effort to subject members' individual offices to open records laws.

The legislation, approved by voice vote, requires earlier notice of local public meetings on a variety of often controversial issues. It increases the fines for some violations of open records and meetings laws. And it requires more of the Missouri Ethics Commission's meetings and documents to be made public.

The bill needs another vote before moving to the Senate.

The Republican-led House rejected on a largely party-line 81-79 vote an effort to extend the Sunshine Law to the communications of individual lawmakers and public officials while working in their official capacities on state-funded equipment.

The legislature and its committees already must follow the Sunshine Law, but lawmakers have interpreted the law to exempt individual members.

Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-Olivette, sponsored the amendment, saying he believes the law likely already applies to individual lawmakers. If not, he said, it should.

"We as individual members have the ability to draft legislation, we as individual members are involved in negotiations and we as individual members have authority over what bills live and what bills die," Zimmerman said.

Rep. Tim Jones, the sponsor of the overall measure, said Zimmerman's amendment was too broad and could make local government workers' emails public records. Jones defended how the Legislature has handled requests for documents from individual lawmakers' offices.

"I'm not sure that Sunshine should apply to each individual member of the body as an individual, because we cannot direct any public agency on our own," said Jones, R-Eureka.

Jones is an attorney whose practice includes searching for information and obtaining public records. He has worked on the Sunshine Law bill for the past year and said it largely focuses on local government agencies, where there tends to be less oversight.

He said the legislation is designed to "make government more open, more transparent and more accountable."

The measure places restrictions on who may attend closed meetings of local governments, which would have to publish minutes of such meetings briefly describing what was discussed.

Government entities would have to give five days' notice, instead of the standard 24 hours, before meetings on such issues such as tax increases, eminent domain, zoning and transportation development districts.

Meetings covering those topics must allow time for the public to comment after the proposal has been presented. If a government agency holds a meeting without providing enough notice, there couldn't be a vote for 20 days.

The legislation also would increase fines against agencies that violate the Sunshine Law. Currently, those that "knowingly" violate the law can be fined up to $1,000, and "purposeful" violations can result in fines of up to $5,000.

Jones' bill would require a $1,000 fine for knowing violations and a penalty of up to $8,000 for purposeful violations.

The legislation also would force the state Ethics Commission to open more of its meetings and release additional documents.

The six-member commission operates largely in secret while investigating campaign finance and public integrity complaints against politicians. The Ethics 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 the bill, investigation reports would be open records if the complaint is sustained. The commission's hearings also would be open to the public, but commission members could decide to close the hearings if someone involved in the complaint requested it.

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