Lawmakers seek to renew Mo. Sunshine Law exemption

Written by Muleskinner Staff

(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., AP) – Legislative efforts to exempt security-related documents from public disclosure also could aid attempts to strengthen Missouri’s open-records law on the 40th anniversary of its creation.
Public safety, education and local government organizations want the Legislature to reinstate security-related exemptions to the open records and meetings law that expired at the end of 2012. The groups contend the information helps protect schools, college campuses, hospitals and power plants and that the sensitive records do not belong in the public domain.
“We have a very strong concern about the issue that these records are open,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “We think they’ve been confidential for a very good reason, to keep students and staff safe. Making these records open could jeopardize the safety of our students and staff.”
The association said it knows of five requests so far for records previously covered by the exemptions. The Missouri Municipal League said renewing the security exemptions also is a priority for it.
For those who are looking to strengthen the Sunshine Law, the hope is that lawmakers will be willing to add other changes with the security-related exemptions.
“This is the year that the exception definitely is on the radar screen and that can only help us,” said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association.
One expired exemption covered operational guidelines and policies developed by law enforcement, public safety, first response or public health authorities for preventing and responding to terrorism incidents. The other dealt with security systems and structural plans for property owned or leased by cities, counties, school districts, public colleges and other government entities. It also shielded information submitted by private entities for governmental agencies to develop plans for protecting infrastructure.
The House and Senate each have approved separate versions. Neither proposal won final approval before the Legislature’s annual weeklong midsession break. House Speaker Tim Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said during a joint news conference this past Thursday that they want to continue the exemptions. Lawmakers are returning to the Capitol on March 25.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to get it addressed this year,” said Dempsey, R-St. Charles.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon called for reinstating the exemptions during January news conferences with numerous law enforcement officials. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the governor looks forward to the Legislature passing a renewal “as soon as possible.”
“These are important protections that balance public safety and security with transparency and accountability, and it is vital that they be reinstated,” Holste said.
Senators included in their version a requirement that most governmental bodies give notice 48 hours before meetings instead of the current 24 hours. In addition, the Senate bill would reduce fines for violations from up to $1,000 to $100 but no longer require that violations have been committed “knowingly.” The government also would shoulder the burden of proving a meeting, record or vote could be closed. Currently, complainants must show the governmental body is required to comply with the law and that the meeting or record was closed. The government then must demonstrate it complied.
Public record custodians would be encouraged to keep an index of records maintained by that agency, and public bodies seeking to close discussions that are related to a “cause of action” would need evidence a lawsuit has been filed or will be filed.
Maneke said there continues to be difficulty enforcing the open records and meetings law because many people cannot afford to hire a lawyer. She said larger fines for violations have not encouraged more enforcement.
Organizations representing cities and counties have raised concerns about proposed expansions. They said additional notice before meetings could pose administrative challenges and have objected to the potential of fines for unwitting violations.
Missouri first passed the Sunshine Law in 1973. That measure was signed by Republican Gov. Kit Bond.
During the past 40 years, Missouri has added to the exemptions. The Sunshine Law now includes exceptions for records such as software codes for electronic data processing, municipal hotlines for reporting abuse and wrongdoing and privileged communication between a public body and its auditor. Another exemption covers records submitted by individuals or corporations to public universities related to proposals to license intellectual property or perform sponsored research and which contain sales projects or business plan information.