Steelman updates Mo. Sunshine Law

Karena Wells

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Sen. Sarah Steelman (R-Rolla) went before the House special committee on general laws April 6 to answer questions and gain support for Senate Bill 1020.

The act would revise various portions of the Sunshine Law to incorporate more provisions relating to public records. It would also create greater penalties for those who violate the law.

Any one person or entity that is negligent of the law could face a fine between $25 and $1,000. Those who willfully violate the law could face even stiffer fines ranging between $1,000 and $5,000.

If found guilty, violators would also be responsible for court costs and lawyer fees for both parties.

Some of the updates to the Sunshine Law include issues pertaining to universities, public schools, as well as reclassifying what would be considered a public meeting.

Under the bill, all chancellors of universities would have to keep records of all gifts they receive.

School boards would have to record what happened in closed session.

Meetings held on conference phone calls and on the Internet would become public meetings and would have to be recorded.

The bill also gives requirements as to the maximum amount that can be charged to someone wishing to have copies of public documents.

Opponents to the bill note that it would create a lot of extra work for some of the smaller towns in Missouri.

The bill could also violate the Hancock Amendment if the state does not allow compensation to those who would be responsible for the extra work the bill would require.

Steelman said that records would not have to be kept on file for everything, but would only need to be made available if a request was made for the documents.

Doug Crews, lobbyist for the Missouri Press Association, was present to support the bill.

“It creates accountability of the government,” Crews said.

He said that compared to other states, the penalties described would be minor.

“Some people are jailed for 30 days for violating the sunshine law, and in Minnesota, you can be taken off the board for violating the law,” Crews said.

“The core of our complaints in the attorney general’s office is that people do not know whether a closed session occurred or not,” said James Klahr, assistant attorney general.

He also supported the bill.

“Missouri government is Jeffersonian, you like it weak and close to the people,” said Gary Markenson, representative for the Missouri Municipal League.

He stood opposed to the bill because of the large fines that could occur, citing it would become a distraction for individuals to serve on boards.

“You are going to see a lot of people fined because they should have known and didn’t,” Markenson said.

Chris Straub, director of inter-governmental relations, was not against the actual bill but the amendments that had been added to it.

The committee did not reach any final decisions on the bill and will revisit it later.