JEFFERSON CITY - Lawmakers reviewed legislation Wednesday that would give violators of Missouri Sunshine laws more than just a slap on the wrist.
A measure proposed by Rep. Phil Smith, D-Louisiana, would toughen the public record and open meeting laws by increasing penalties imposed against governmental bodies found to have illegally limited public access.
The bill sprang from audits conducted last year by State Auditor Claire McCaskill, who said many request for public information went unanswered by municipal governments across the state.
According to McCaskill, the importance of Smith's bill is that it would change the burden of proof for violations of the law from "purposely" to "knowingly."
"Purposely is one of the strong words in the legal language. It is used in murder charges. The only other place that you see it is in regard to sunshine laws and campaign finance reform," McCaskill said, criticizing the language of current state law, which was enacted 28 years ago.
The measure would raise the maximum fine to $25,000 from $500, though sanctions would be limited to five percent of the municipality's annual budget. In the event of a knowing disregard for the Sunshine Law, judges would have the authority to require reimbursement of the applicant's legal expenses.
The bill stipulates that the court shall determine the amount of the penalty by taking into account the size of the jurisdiction, the seriousness of the offense, and whether the public governmental body or member of a public governmental body has violated this law previously.
"The attorney's fees provision is important," McCaskill said. "For large television stations and newspapers, suing the government for information is not a problem. When you get to places like outstate Missouri, cost prohibits many people from getting information that is actually open to them."
Gary Markenson, a lobbyist for the Missouri Municipal League, said increased fines would hurt only low-level staff.
"The people that pay for these increased fines are the underpaid secretaries and clerks and the citizen volunteers that make municipal government work," Markenson told members of the House committee considering the measure.
Markenson said that in Missouri's 4,000 political subdivisions -- 80 percent of which are relatively small villages and townships -- most errors occurred because there was only a part-time staff.
He said the state should instead set up outreach programs and serve as a mediator, suggesting that the Attorney General could put government agencies on notice before beginning litigation.
"Missourians have a Jeffersonian political culture. They want it weak, fragmented and close to the people," Markenson said. "The public distrust that comes from breaking the law is penalty enough."
Proponents of the bill argued that even with the Sunshine laws in place, citizens lacked full and complete access.
"The current penalty is ineffective," said Doug Crews, a lobbyist for the Missouri Press Association, of which the Columbia Missourian is a member. "This is a 28 year old law. It should have some teeth to it."