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Governor signs expansive Sunshine Law reform bill

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    News Media Update         MISSOURI         Freedom of Information    

Governor signs expansive Sunshine Law reform bill

  • Missouri broadened its Sunshine Law to cover electronic records and online meetings, made it easier for the public to sue over alleged violations, and expanded the definition of public agencies subject to the act but created new “security” exemptions.

June 10, 2004 — Missouri Gov. Bob Holden signed legislation Monday that grants the public broad access to electronic records and “virtual” meetings, the first major improvements to the state’s Open Records and Meetings Law since 1998. However, the law also creates exemptions for information on first responders and on information concerning the infrastructure.

The law addresses changes that have occurred in communications technology over the past six years. It expands the definition of “public meetings” to include conference calls, video conference calls, Internet chat rooms and online message boards.

Missouri Press Association Director Doug Crews said some elected officials use the Internet to discuss and decide issues before ever debating them publicly. “That provision is an attempt to make sure there isn’t too much chatting going on behind the scenes by public officials,” said Crews, in a story in the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian .

Public boards must now give the public 24-hour notice of “public meetings” for electronic meetings, including detailed information about logging in and monitoring the discussions. The bill defines “public meeting” as any meeting by a majority of its members at which any public business is discussed, formulated or decided. The bill further requires public access to computer records and digitized government data, including e-mail messages sent among elected and appointed officials.

The new law lowers the burden of proof to sue over open record and open meeting violations, and broadens the definition of “public governmental bodies” required to release certain records.

Under the old law, a judge had to find by a preponderance of the evidence that a public body or its officer had “purposefully” violated the open record or open meeting law for plaintiffs to receive civil damages. Penalties were limited to $500, plus reasonable attorneys’ fees determined at the court’s discretion.

“People who have been accused of violating the Sunshine Law have been able to stand behind the excuse that they were ignorant of the law,” a privilege afforded to violators of no other state law, state Rep. Jack Goodman (R-Mount Vernon) told the Columbia Daily Tribune .

In a revision of the standard, plaintiffs must now show a “knowing” violation to win a maximum fine of $1,000 and attorneys’ fees are granted under court discretion. Lawmakers did not define “knowing” as they struck a political compromise that avoids a “negligence” standard. for liability. Legislators passed “knowing” with an eye to defining it as a standard less than “purposeful,” but slightly higher than “negligence.” The new law provides that defendants may be fined up to $5,000 for a “purposeful” violation of the law, with a mandatory reimbursement of attorney’s fees.

Another provision arose out of a 1998 lawsuit filed by The Kansas City Star against the University of Missouri for refusing to release internal audits. In court, the university argued that only its board of curators, not the entire university staff, represented a public body. The court rejected that argument and the two parties eventually settled the case.

As a result, legislators updated the open records law to specifically connote the University of Missouri as a “public governmental body” subject to the Sunshine Law.

The new law creates exemptions from disclosure for operational policies developed by first responders — police, fire and ambulance personnel — and for information voluntarily submitted by non-public entities, such as private utility companies, to state or local governments about the security of the infrastructure.

(SB 1020) TS

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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