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Missouri's Sunshine Law needs to be strengthened

"Upgrades'' proposed for the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, are a step in the right direction, but we believe additional changes are needed to ensure the public's access to open and accountable government.

During a press conference last week, Attorney General Jay Nixon and two area state representatives, including Democrat Sue Schoemehl of Oakville, expressed their support for the Sunshine Upgrade Act, which is designed to open electronic records and meetings and prohibit secret votes via telephone or computer, according to a news release issued by Nixon.

The sponsor of the measure, Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, expects to prefile the legislation this month.

Among the proposed additions to the Sunshine Law are:

• Requiring that e-mail correspondence between a majority of the members of a public body be transmitted to the custodian of records and, upon request, be made available to the public.

• Prohibiting voting on public business by the use of a "phone tree'' or "e-mail tree'' where a public body attempts to, by avoiding group discussion during a public meeting, take votes without the benefit of a public meeting.

We believe the proposed changes to the Sunshine Law are sound and should be enacted. But given the fact that Missouri's Sunshine Law is one of the weakest in the nation, we urge legislators to take additional steps to strengthen the law, including:

• Eliminating "closed votes'' by members of a governmental body by requiring all votes to be taken in open session. While we don't disagree with the need for members of a governmental body to discuss specific issues — as narrowly defined by the Sunshine Law — in closed session, we believe all votes taken by elected officials should be done during an open meeting.

Though the current law stipulates that any votes taken during a closed session must be roll-call votes, we believe the public should be able to observe firsthand how their elected officials cast crucial votes. For many, many years, the Illinois Open Meetings Act has prohibited public bodies from taking any final action — voting — in closed meetings.

Before voting on a matter discussed during a closed session, public bodies in Illinois must reconvene in open session and "disclose to the public the substance of any final action which is being taken, whether that substance has been discussed in an open or a closed meeting,'' according to the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

• Requiring governmental bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of closed sessions.

Once again, we could take a lesson from our neighbor to the east as Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this year signed Senate Bill 158, also called the "verbatim record bill.''

That law, effective Jan. 1, requires public bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of all closed sessions.

Such recordings, which must be kept for a minimum of 18 months, are not considered public records under the law and are not available for public inspection.

The recordings also are not subject to discovery in any legal proceeding except to enforce the provisions of the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

In that event, a judge is permitted to review the recording in the privacy of chambers. Any conversations considered privileged under an attorney-client relationship will not be disclosed.

We believe requiring governmental bodies in this state to make and maintain recordings of all closed sessions would go a long way to ensuring compliance with the specific exceptions of the Missouri Sunshine Law permitting closed sessions.

It's no secret that a great many of our local governmental bodies thumb their noses at the provisions of the Sunshine Law, particularly abusing the provisions that permit closed sessions.

One local governmental entity, however, has set a shining example of compliance with the Sunshine Law — the Crestwood Board of Aldermen.

In perhaps what was a first in the state, the Crestwood Board of Aldermen voted in March 2002 to begin tape recording closed sessions involving litigation and real estate matters.

Though board members were not unanimous in their vote to tape record closed sessions involving litigation and real estate matters, the sky hasn't fallen as some aldermen had feared.

But Crestwood is a notable exception given the number of local governmental entities that routinely demonstrate questionable compliance with the Sunshine Law. We believe our legislators need to reaffirm this state's commitment that the public will have access to open and accountable government.

While the proposed Sunshine Upgrade Act certainly is a small step in the right direction, we urge legislators to take a giant leap toward making Missouri's Sunshine Law one of the best in the nation by eliminating closed session-votes and requiring the audio or video recording of all closed sessions.

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