Closed city council committee meeting was illegal, Missouri judge rules
MISSOURI — A meeting of the executive police committee of the Louisiana, Mo., City Council to hear citizen complaints, primarily from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was closed illegally, the Circuit Court in Pike County Missouri ruled in early December.
In February the committee announced a meeting to discuss the discipline of a police employee and 25 to 30 people attended along with city council members on the committee. However, when Louisiana Press-Journal reporter Mark Hodapp tried to attend, the committee asked him to leave and locked the door behind him. Hodapp tried to re-enter the meeting along with the newspaper’s general manager Walt Gilbert but both were denied admission.
The city’s attorney told the newspapermen that the meeting had been called at the request of the NAACP and that most, but not all, of the public members were NAACP members concerned with problems with the police department.
The newspaper sued, asking that actions at the meeting be voided and that the council be fined and forced to pay the newspaper’s attorney’s fees.
The city argued that because one NAACP minister told the council that the group intended to sue if it were not satisfied with the council’s action, the litigation exemption to the Missouri open records law would apply.
After several months the court announced it would not grant the injunction, finding that no action was taken that could be voided. It also did not fine the council members for deliberately breaking the law. And the court refused to grant attorney’s fees to the newspaper saying there was no evidence that the councilmen “purposely violated” the act.
However the court ruled that the closure was illegal. The mere threat of legal action would not exempt the meeting from openness requirements, the court said.
(Press Journal Publishing Co. v. City of Louisiana: Media Counsel: Rex Bradley, Louisiana, Mo.)