Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said he and the Missouri Press Association are having trouble reaching agreement on proposed changes to the open meetings law.
Griesheimer heard Missouri Press Association Executive Director Doug Crews discuss proposed changes to the open meetings law Monday during the Missouri Association of Counties Legislative Conference in Jefferson City.
Griesheimer said he planned on testifying on the open meetings law, but there was no hearing on the bill.
Griesheimer has publicly stated that he disagrees with some of the changes the press association would like to see made.
For instance, the open meetings law currently states that officials can be fined for “knowingly” violating the law. The bill would remove the word “knowingly.” This way, a violation would not have to be done “knowingly” in order for there to be a fine.
The bill would also change the fine for a Sunshine Law violation to a mandatory $100. The current fine is “up to $1,000.”
And the bill would require government bodies found in violation of the Sunshine law to pay the attorney fees of the party establishing the violation. Currently, the law says that the government body found in violation “may” have to pay attorney fees.
Griesheimer said he does not want the open meetings law to be changed in a fashion that makes it easier for critics to harass the commissioners with baseless complaints.
Other changes proposed in a Senate version of the bill include increasing the amount of public notice for meetings from 24 to 48 hours.
Only four weeks remain in the legislative session, and Crews said the open meetings legislation has “slowed down a little bit.”
To Notice or Not to Notice
Griesheimer said he spoke out about the open meetings bill at the conference and said there must be some “give and take.”
For instance, he said Franklin County has proposed adding language into the open meetings law to more clearly define what types of meetings have to be publicly noticed and which ones do not.
Griesheimer noted that commissioners in first-class counties work full time and therefore interact with each on a regular basis. More clarity is needed in the open meetings law in terms of what types of interactions between commissioners constitute public meetings that must be posted, he said.
Griesheimer said he does not think every time there is a majority of the commissioners together that a public meeting should have to be posted.
For instance, if the commissioners are meeting with an employee or constituent, there should not always have to be a public notice of that meeting, he said.
“Those are administrative functions; that’s what we are supposed to do,” Griesheimer said.
There have been occasions when two or more commissioners have met with employees and constituents without posting a public meeting, Griesheimer said.
Even though county business is discussed during those meetings, Griesheimer said he still does not think they should have to be publicly noticed meetings.
For instance, he said the three county commissioners were together Friday morning to meet with the highway department employees. He said the purpose of the meeting was to introduce the two new commissioners — Mike Schatz and Tim Brinker — to the highway department. Griesheimer said there was no public notice of that meeting.
The intent of the law is to make sure there are not decisions being made in a closed manner, he said. If every meeting had to be posted, the county could not function, he said.
“How do you post everything we do?” Griesheimer asked. “It would be impossible. That’s why there has to be a clarification of the law.”
He added that he wants to abide by the law but should not have his hands tied to do his duties.
Defining the Law
The county says that the open meetings law only excludes “ministerial functions” from what constitutes a public meeting. Moreover, the county says that the word “ministerial” is not defined in the law.
Griesheimer said in his view ministerial means meeting without making a decision.
Therefore, the county has proposed adding language that states, “the term ‘public meeting’ shall also not include the daily contact between commissioners in the counties of the first class when performing ministerial, administrative or executive tasks.”
But Griesheimer said Crews has responded to the county’s proposed language with other language that does not make sense.
Griesheimer said it does not appear that the press association is open to the county’s proposed language. Therefore, he said the county and the press association may just have to agree to disagree.
Griesheimer said the MPA responded with a definition of ministerial that states, “An act that the law directs be performed upon a given set of facts independent of what the public governmental body or its member may think of the propriety or impropriety of doing the act in a particular case, which does not require the exercise of reason in determining how or whether the act should be performed.”