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House committee to hear Sunshine Bill

April 03, 2000
By: Jennifer Lutz
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 858

JEFFERSON CITY - The bill to toughen Missouri's Open Meetings Law keeps inching closer to its ultimate goal of becoming law.

March 16 the Senate unanimously passed the bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, that would strengthen the state's Sunshine Law.

On Wednesday the House Civil and Administrative Law Committee will hear testimony the measure that would toughen penalties for violations of the Open Meetings Law.

The proposal -- sponsored by Maxwell -- passed unanimously by Missouri's Senate in mid-March.

The committee's chairman said the committee will not vote on the bill this week. Rather, committee members will hear the bill one week, and vote on it during an executive session at the next meeting. The Civil Committee will meet again on April 12.

If the bill passes out of the House committee, its next step will be to be heard by the entire House.

"To me, it is very hard to not support the bill if you're a legislator," Maxwell said.

The proposed legislation would make it illegal to knowingly disregard the law. Currently, it is against the law only if it can be proved that the public body purposely ignored the Sunshine Law.

"Purposely is almost impossible to find," said Doug Crews, executive director of the Missouri Press Association. He spoke in favor of the legislation when it reached a Senate committee.

"Consequently, you could count on one hand how many fines are dished out under the Sunshine Law to violators," Crews said.

Maxwell's bill would increase the amount of money that governmental bodies who violate the law would have to pay. The current law states the maximum penalty is $500, but Maxwell's bill would up the cost to $2,500.

"This is probably a more reasonable amount," Crews said. "But to a larger jurisdiction, $2,500 isn't much of a deterrent."

Another influential group, the Missouri Municipal League, also agreed that $2,500 is a more appropriate number.

Gary Markenson, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, spoke in opposition to the bill when it reached a Senate committee. At that time the bill called for fines to range from a minimum of $500 to a maximum $25,000.

Since then, the fines have been changed and Markenson has changed his mind. He said he thinks the $2,500 cap is acceptable.

"The Senate reached a very reasonable compromise," Markenson said.

The fine would be determined by a court based on the seriousness of the offense, whether the governmental body has violated the Open Meetings Law before, and the size of the jurisdiction.

"Personally I don't see the need to raise the fines," Markenson said. "A $500 fee would definitely get my attention."

However, Maxwell said that some bigger entities in the state would rather pay the fine than hand over the public information.

"We need the ability to enforce the law," he said.