A bill that would change the state’s law dealing with public meetings and open records would put an unnecessary burden on government officials, Franklin County commissioners said this week.
Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer called it “a terrible piece of legislation.”
The county commissioners spoke out against the bill during a work session with county department heads Wednesday.
“We’re going to have to fight it,” Griesheimer said.
But Missouri Press Association Executive Director Doug Crews said he thinks the proposed changes to the Sunshine Law are “reasonable.”
Currently, government officials in Missouri can be fined for knowingly violating the state’s open meetings law. The new bill would take the word “knowingly” out of the Sunshine Law so there could be violations even if they were done accidentally.
“The bill is so bad there’s no way to fix it,” Griesheimer said.
Proving that a Sunshine Law violation was done knowingly is nearly an impossible standard to meet, Crews said.
First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said removing “knowingly” puts the burden on elected officials to disprove allegations of Sunshine Law violations.
It could be costly for governmental bodies to defend themselves against such allegations, Brinker said.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Brinker said.
Current law states if government bodies knowingly violate the Sunshine Law they can be fined up to $1,000, and the bill would change the fine to $100.
This will give the courts a simple, straightforward fine to charge violators of the Sunshine Law, Crews said.
The goal is to bring attention to the law so public officials abide by it and provide accountability to the taxpayers, Crews said.
“The press association is not trying to haul people into court,” Crews said. “We just want public bodies to abide by the Sunshine Law.”
The bill, which passed in the state Senate Thursday, is sponsored by state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City.
Current law states that the party that proves a violation of the Sunshine Law may be awarded attorneys fees and court costs. The bill would make the payment of the court costs and attorneys fees mandatory if a governmental body is found guilty of the violation.
Crews said this will give leverage to citizens who often challenge the openness of government officials who have lots of money and attorneys to dispute claims of secrecy.
Second District County Commissioner Mike Schatz said he has no problems with the Sunshine Law but does not want it to become a tedious law to uphold.
Schatz said he is not an expert on the Sunshine Law but said it is one thing to accidentally violate it and another to do so intentionally.
To violate it on purpose is “flat wrong,” Schatz said.
If the word “knowingly” is taken out, one mistake could lead to a government body being held accountable for a violation, Schatz said.
Griesheimer said he wishes lawmakers who are considering the bill had served on a local level to understand some of the issues county commissioners face.
He said he does not want to give critics of the county commission more reasons to file complaints.
The bill either needs to be killed or have common sense brought to it, Griesheimer added.
The bill also would require public notice 48 hours prior to a meeting rather than the current 24 hours. But the General Assembly would still only be required to give news media 24 hours of public notice.
Another change in the bill would require public bodies to provide a list of topics discussed in executive session. This is to head off issues with boards saying they are going into closed sessions to discuss one topic and then discussing other matters as well, Crews said.