Attorney general, Schoemehl support ‘upgrades’ to Sunshine Law

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon and two area state representatives have unveiled legislation designed to greatly improve access to information regarding governmental decision-making.

At a news conference last week in downtown St. Louis, Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville, Rep. Clint Zweifel, D-Florissant, and the attorney general expressed their support for the Sunshine Upgrade Act, a bill that opens electronic records and meetings and prohibits secret votes via telephone or computer.

Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, who will sponsor the bill, also attended the news conference.

“For the past 30 years, Missouri’s Sunshine Law has served our citizens well,” Nixon stated in a news release. “But in those three decades, technology has changed the way we communicate. We must upgrade the Sunshine Law to continue to reap its benefits.”

“Public access is one of the cornerstones of honest, open government,” Schoemehl stated. “These changes can help Missourians more fully participate in the function of state and local governments.”

“The rapid advances of technology often make it necessary for us to re-examine and then amend our laws in order to better serve taxpayers,” Zweifel noted in the release. “Missourians will better benefit from the Sunshine Law with changes that address newer forms of communication.”

The Sunshine Upgrade Act calls for these additions to the law:

• Require that e-mail correspondence between a majority of the members of a public body be transmitted to the custodian of records and, upon request, be made available to the public.

• Prohibit voting on public business by the use of a “phone tree” or “e-mail tree” where a public body attempts to, by avoiding group discussion, take votes without the benefit of a public meeting.

• Allow a public body to respond to requests for records in the format received. For example, a public body may respond to an e-mail request by e-mail which, in many cases, will save the public body time and money because computers have made it much easier to sort and access records.

• Require that, if a public body has a “virtual meeting” over the Internet, that the body post a notice of that meeting on its Web site in addition to the physical notice at its office.

“As technology leaps forward, upgrading the Sunshine Law is critical to giving Missourians the access to government they deserve,” Harris stated.

He expects to pre-file his bill in the Legislature this month.