By CHRIS BLANK
(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., AP) — Running afoul of Missouri’s open government laws could carry a smaller financial penalty but no longer require proof the law knowingly was broken under legislation before a Senate committee.
Officials or agencies now can be required to pay up to $5,000 for a purposeful violation and up to $1,000 for a “knowing” violation. The Senate legislation would reduce the amount of the lesser penalty to $100 and allow it to be applied when the government did not knowingly break Missouri’s requirements for open meetings and public records. The larger penalty would remain for purposeful violations.
Supporters say the legislation would make enforcement of the Sunshine Law similar to that of other statutes.
“If you get a traffic ticket, there is a penalty that you pay,” said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association. “It’s a small penalty compared to what the law is today, but it’s enough to get your attention and cause you to start paying attention to these kinds of laws.”
Maneke said officials promise to uphold state law but that the Sunshine Law is one “they don’t seem very concerned about knowing what the law says, and it’s frankly not that hard to understand.”
The Missouri auditor’s office identified Sunshine Law violations in 15 percent of its audits last year. Auditor Tom Schweich reported violations in about 20 percent of reviews completed by his office in 2012 and 2011.
The proposed changes to the Sunshine Law prompted concerns from organizations for cities, counties and other local government agencies. They questioned levying penalties against people who can be volunteers and who accidentally violate the Sunshine Law while serving their communities.
Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, said the legislation could have a “chilling effect” on the willingness of people to serve on boards and commissions.
“This puts a big target on common citizens just trying to serve their community,” he said.
The Missouri Sunshine Law, first passed in 1973, has been updated several times.
The law requires government boards to provide notice 24 hours before a meeting. Officials must reference a specific exemption to close meetings to the public. To provide records requested under the law, agencies can charge up to 10 cents per page, the average hourly wage of clerical staff for making copies and the actual cost of research time. Officials must respond to a request within three days, though it does not mean documents have to be provided that quickly.
The law presumes meetings and documents are open, though there are numerous exceptions that allow — but do not require — government agencies to close them. Exemptions address issues such as communication with agencies’ attorneys, school expulsions, software codes for electronic data processing and operational policies for responding to terrorism.
Missouri lawmakers in 2004 approved legislation that included increasing penalties for Sunshine Law violations from $500 to their current level.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer is sponsoring the Sunshine Law legislation, which is similar to a bill he filed last year. Schaefer, R-Columbia, is running for attorney general in 2016, and that office is responsible for enforcing the Sunshine Law.
Schaefer’s legislation also would bar government agencies from charging for time spent reviewing whether requested documents are exempt from disclosure. It would require that the courts order the government to pay attorney fees when a complaint about a Sunshine Law violation is sustained. Attorney fees currently must be paid for purposeful violations and are an option for knowing violations.
Sunshine Law is SB843