Bill would help shed light on governmental entities

By Mike Anthony

A Missouri Senate committee last week heard testimony on a bill that would modify the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law.

As regular readers of this column know, we believe Missouri’s Sunshine Law is one of the weakest in the nation. As such, any changes would be welcome.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, is sponsoring Senate Bill 764, which we believe would help improve government transparency statewide. As proposed, the bill would:

• Modify the definition of a public body to include quasi-public governmental bodies that act on behalf of a governmental entity and are funded wholly or partly by public funds, as well as any Missouri high school athletic association that receives public funds.

• Increase the time public bodies are required to provide meeting notices to 48 hours before a meeting instead of the current 24 hours — except for the General Assembly, which would continue to provide notice of meetings 24 hours in advance.

• Require that when a governmental body plans to close meetings, records or votes to discuss a legal cause of action, “the body shall have received evidence that a lawsuit has been filed, although not yet served, or shall have actual correspondence from a party stating that litigation shall be filed …”

• Require a public body to prove a meeting, record or vote may be closed when facing a legal challenge regarding compliance with the Sunshine Law.

Those are just some of the provisions of SB 764 we believe would help improve access to public meetings and record. It’s no secret such transparency sorely is lacking.

As we noted last month, a report issued by Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich found state and local governing bodies routinely violate the Sunshine Law.

While SB 764 is a step in the right direction, we believe the proposed changes do not go far enough.

For years, this newspaper has urged our state legislators to adopt some of the provisions contained in the Illinois Open Meetings Act, including requiring governing bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of all closed sessions and requiring all votes of a governing body be taken in open session.

Those kinds of changes apparently are light years away from occurring in Missouri. That said, passage of SB 764 would be a vast improvement over the existing Sunshine Law.