It's That Time of Year. (Media/Law)
Jones, Ken, St. Louis Journalism Review
It's become an annual rite of spring in the state legislature. Open-records bills are introduced, much ink is spilled over toughening the Sunshine Law, and then nothing much is accomplished by the end of the session.
Will it be any different this year? The most significant proposal is Senate Bill 685, sponsored by Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, which would make several revisions to the open-government law. The provision attracting the most attention would raise the maximum penalty from $500 per violation to $2,500 or 5 percent of the government body's annual budget, whichever is lower.
Moreover, if the violation is "knowing," the offending government body or member must pay the legal fees of the plaintiff who prevailed in the case. Currently, a trial judge has discretion over whether to award fees--something judges have been reluctant to do.
The bill provides a safe harbor for members of a government body who want to avoid a penalty--if they object in the minutes of the hearing that they believe that "the body is wrongfully closing a meeting or vote," this is an "absolute defense" against liability for the penalty.
At a Feb. 11 hearing, State Auditor Claire McCaskill testified in support of the bill. She reminded the Senate panel of an experiment her office conducted last year to test the level of compliance by state agencies with the Sunshine Law. According to an April 2001 Associated Press story, "almost half of state governmental bodies surveyed did not adequately respond to requests from her office, disguised as letters from citizens, for copies of public records." In addition, "54 percent of the surveyed agencies charged fees higher than the cost of copying the records."
The bill also specifically names the curator of the University of Missouri and any bi-state development agency as entities subject to the Sunshine Law. In addition, votes at open meetings must be by roll call--currently required only at closed meetings--unless they involve procedural or ministerial matters. And the bill expands the enforcement powers of the attorney general in investigating Sunshine Law complaints.
SB 685 would also modify the county-coroner statute, which is not under the umbrella of the Sunshine Law. A county coroner investigating a death would be required to make a public report within 72 hours of death, disclosing information such as the identity of the deceased, the location of death and the results of any autopsy performed.
Another Steelman-sponsored bill, this one regarding the sealing of court documents, is being trumpeted by plaintiffs' lawyers and lambasted by insurance companies. …