Call the Tune
MSD still making the case why elected board needed
Only the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District can transform a simple request for information into another reason why the district should have an elected Board of Trustees.
But district officials have done just that in response to a request from longtime MSD observer Tom Sullivan, who had the temerity to request the names, addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers and e-mail addresses of the six appointed members of the district's Board of Trustees.
In response to Mr. Sullivan's recent request for information, MSD Secretary-Treasurer Karl J. Tyminski provided the names of the six board members — Dee Joyce-Hayes, Marian A. Rhodes, Claude Brown, Joan M. Swartz, Bart J. Margiotta and Robert J. Baer — but declined to provide any additional information.
"The district does not give out the personal information of the trustees,'' Mr. Tyminski responded in an April 18 letter to Mr. Sullivan. The letter also noted that Mr. Sullivan can contact board members through Sheri Nackley, secretary to the Board of Trustees.
Mr. Sullivan apparently found that response as unsatisfying as we did because he made a second request for the same information.
"Please see the attached memorandum from our legal staff that includes a quote from the Sunshine Law indicating why these records are closed,'' Mr. Tyminski wrote in a May 5 letter to Mr. Sullivan.
The accompanying memorandum written by attorney Paula Eckrich of the district's legal staff states that under the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also called the Sunshine Law, the district does not have to disclose the addresses and telephone numbers of members of the Board of Trustees in response to a request for such information.
The memorandum cites one of the exemptions to the Sunshine Law that authorizes public governmental bodies to close meetings, records and votes to the extent they relate to the following:
"Individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records relating to employees or applicants for employment, except that this exemption shall not apply to the names, positions, salaries and lengths of service of officers and employees of public agencies once they are em-ployed as such.''
The attorney's memorandum further states: "Certainly, home addresses and home phone numbers would classify as 'in-dividually identifiable personnel records' which are clearly authorized to be closed. I believe we are only required to give the names, positions, compensation and length of service on the board. Additionally, anyone has access to these board members by leaving messages at the MSD general telephone number or by attending the meetings.''
The Sunshine Law is designed to promote open access to meetings and records of public governmental bodies. Leave it to the MSD to expend time and money in an effort to pervert the law's intention and limit access to what clearly is public information.
We believe the exemption cited by the MSD's legal staff applies solely to MSD employees or prospective employees and not appointed members of the Board of Trustees. Just consider the exemption itself, which states: "... This exemption shall not apply to the names, positions, salaries and lengths of service of officers and employees of public agencies once they are employed as such.''
Informational material about the Sunshine Law published by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon states, "Generally, an employee is one who receives wages or a salary from the government.''
We believe the $25 trustees receive for each meeting they attend hardly qualifies as a salary or wages. Furthermore, the attorney general also notes, "... Independent contractors, members of volunteer citizen boards and elected officials are not employees for the purposes ...'' of another Sunshine Law exemption that permits closed meetings to discuss "hiring, firing or promoting of particular employees by a governmental body when personal information about the employee is discussed or recorded.''
We contend that the appointed trustees are serving as volunteers, therefore, the Sunshine Law exemption cited by the MSD legal staff does not apply to them. In addition, if the MSD Board of Trustees was an elected body, candidates for the board would have to disclose their address when they filed to seek election.
As we've said before, the MSD Charter needs to be amended so the public — not the county executive or the St. Louis mayor, both of whom currently appoint the trustees — can decide who serves on the board. Such a measure would go a long way toward ensuring that trustees would be accountable to the public and not the politicos who currently appoint them.
Ironically, when St. Louis County Executive George R. "Buzz'' Westfall provides information to the County Council about people he is appointing to boards and commissions, that documentation includes addresses and other information about the appointees. Furthermore, most governmental bodies routinely make available the names, addresses, telephone numbers and even e-mail addresses of their members and those of volunteer boards and commissions. In fact, many governmental bodies include such information on agendas and other information related to meetings.
Only the MSD with its long history of questionable compliance with the Sunshine Law would consider such information secret.
In an effort to restore the public's confidence in the MSD, County Executive Westfall and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay asked for and received the resignations of five members of the six-member MSD Board of Trustees. They then appointed five new board members.
We believe all six members of the Board of Trustees should direct Mr. Tyminski to provide the information Mr. Sullivan requested or they should resign their volunteer positions because the public they serve has a right to know where they live.
If they're unwilling to grant Mr. Sullivan's request, a logical conclusion is that they will have no problem continuing the district's long tradition of questionable compliance with the Sunshine Law.