Press association attorney says Crestwood policy violates law

City officials refuse to deliver meeting notices to media

By BURKE WASSON

An attorney representing the Missouri Press Association believes the city of Crestwood is violating state law by not delivering public-meeting notices to media.

Crestwood City Administrator Frank Myers said last week that because city officials do not want to show favoritism to any specific media outlet, the city does not send public-meeting notices to any media — even those that request such notices.

He also said City Clerk Tina Flowers had “cleared” that policy with City Attorney Robert Golterman and that it is an “administrative policy” that was not voted on by the Board of Aldermen. Flowers began work in January as city clerk.

“We post our notices on our city Web site,” Myers said. “And we don’t send any special notices to any, you know, news-media outlets regarding meetings. And she (Flowers) had kind of cleared that policy with the city attorney. So we’re in compliance with the law and not showing any favoritism.

“And I guess, for whatever reason … and she had shared with me that when you requested in writing to be notified that she had left you a voice message what the policy was.”

But under the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, governmental entities are required to make “reasonable notice” of public meetings available to news media requesting such notices. Notices also must be provided at the same time they are made available to members of a governmental body.

Chapter 610.020 of the Sunshine Law states, “… Reasonable notice shall include making available copies of the notice to any representative of the news media who requests notice of meetings of a particular public governmental body concurrent with the notice being made available to the members of the particular governmental body and posting the notice on a bulletin board or other prominent place which is easily accessible to the public and clearly designated for that purpose at the principal office of the body holding the meeting, or if no such office exists, at the building in which the meeting is held.”

Because of the legal requirements set forth in that section, Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke believes that Crestwood’s policy regarding meeting notices violates the Sunshine Law.

“I think their policy violates state law,” she said. “It’s clear that if the news media requests copies of notice, the copies have to be made available to them. And if you have some media entities that request and some don’t, I think it’s a violation of the law to create a policy that says: ‘We are not going to follow what the state law says. We’re not going to make it available to anybody so that we’re fair.’ That policy clearly violates state law.”

On Jan. 19, the Call submitted a written request for prior notification of all meetings of all Crestwood boards and commissions. Copies of the request were delivered to Myers, Flowers and Mayor Roy Robin-son. But Myers said last week that while city officials respect the Sunshine Law, they also want to be consistent in their relationships with media.

“Naturally, we want to comply in law,” Myers said. “We also want to be consistent. And I know as Tina has arrived on the scene, she feels very strongly that as we send out these notices that we be consistent. And she had cleared this with the city attorney of just putting these on the Web site.”

But during a March seminar on the Sun-shine Law sponsored by the Mehlville School District and Call Newspapers, Missouri Assistant Attorney General James Klahr said a media representative requesting meeting notices has a right to receive the notices at the same time members of a governmental body receive them.

“… If the media requests your public body to get — if the media wants notice at the same time that the public members get notice, they have a right to that,” Klahr said during the March 21 seminar.

A resolution approved in August 2004 by the city’s Board of Aldermen adopted “a reasonable written policy to assure compliance” with new and future provisions of the Sunshine Law.

Part of that policy approved by the board in 2004 states that Crestwood “shall comply with sections 610.010 to 610.030” of the Sunshine Law “as now existing or here-after amended.”

The resolution also recognized that “a public governmental body shall provide a reasonable written policy in compliance with sections 610.010 to 610.030.”

Despite that resolution adopting a “reasonable written policy,” the city has no written documentation of its current policy of not sending meeting notices to news media. Besides the lack of documentation for the city policy “cleared” this year by Golterman, aldermen did not vote on it.

Of the governmental entities covered by the Call, the city of Crestwood is the only one that has not delivered a single public-meeting notice in 2007 to the newspaper.

The Call receives public-meeting notices from numerous governmental entities, including the County Council, the Lindbergh School District, the Mehlville School District, the Mehlville Fire Protection District, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and the cities of Sunset Hills and Green Park. Such notices are mailed, faxed or e-mailed to the newspaper.

Maneke also cited a 1993 legal opinion from Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon that states a government body “will need” to fax or even hand deliver a copy of a meeting notice to a media representative who requests such notice.

Nixon’s opinion states: “It may be the public governmental body will have the notice prepared far enough before the meeting that a copy can be mailed to the business address of a (media) representative. It may be the public governmental body will need to fax a copy to the office of a (media) representative or have a copy hand delivered to the office of a (media) representative.”

Maneke said the attorney general’s opinion is designed to prevent a situation of a media outlet not being aware of a meeting of a governmental entity.

“We do have an attorney general’s opinion that says if you need to fax it to them, you need to fax it to them,” Maneke said. “And certainly, I think that carries some weight. And beyond that, if they don’t tell you that they’re available in some fashion, how do you know they’re available?

“Certainly, it’s at no expense for them to send you an e-mail when they send an e-mail to their board members. Or if they send them by mail to the board members, it talks about doing it at the same time that they do it and make it available to you at the same time they make it available to them. It’s a very small expense to drop a copy in the mail to you when they mail it to them.

“So, I would certainly argue that just putting it out on the countertop doesn’t fulfill what the requirement of the law is and the spirit of the law,” Maneke said.