JEFFERSON CITY - Legislation to toughen the state's Open Meetings Law ran into a firestorm of criticism in Missouri's Senate from lawmakers who warned tougher penalties could drive people away from public office.
Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, has proposed a bill that would strengthen the current Sunshine Law. The fines would be increased and a court would decide how much to charge based upon the severity, whether the agency is a repeat offender and the size of the jurisdiction.
"No one who gives people records pays a penalty," Maxwell said. "Only when they deny access are they penalized."
His bill reached the Senate floor on Wednesday, but the opponents came prepared to dampen his idea.
Several senators spoke in opposition to proposal. Current legislation imposes a maximum penalty of $500 to a government official who does not turn over public information to someone who asks for it.
Maxwell's bill would stiffen the fines from a minimum of $500 to a maximum $15,000.
Senators who opposed the legislation began to shower Maxwell's bill with amendments.
First, Sen. Jim Mathewson, D-Sedalia, offered an amendment that would reduce the fines to a maximum $5000. He also wanted to make it illegal only if the suspect knowingly didn't provide the information. Maxwell's bill would make it a crime to intentionally or unintentionally not hand over public information.
"We can't have this sort of situation in this state, because we won't have anyone on the boards," Mathewson warned.
He argued that the harsh penalties would chase away people running for smaller town boards that would be subject to the open meetings law.
"You won't find anyone to run," Mathewson said.
Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, agreed that the stiff fines could have a negative affect on smaller communities.
"If you treat everyone as dishonest, people who are honest won't run for office," he said.
But, Caskey said he thought Mathewson's suggestion of $5,000 also was too much. Caskey argued that the fine, no matter how high, would not be a deterrent if it is paid with tax money.
"It could cause good people not to run for boards," Caskey said. "This is reverse blackmail where if you don't give it to me just because, I'll sue."
Trying to water-down the bill even more, Sen. John Schneider, D-St. Louis County, offered an amendment to Mathewson's amendment. Schneider's proposal would reduce the maximum fine even more to $2,500. But, his approach would allow a court to fine a government agency $5,000 if the information purposely wasn't handed over, or it occurred on repeated occasions.
Next, Sen. Jerry Howard, D-Dexter, offered an amendment that would award the fines on a gradual scale based on population. If a government body represents a population of 100,000 or more, the penalty may be as strict as $5000.
Eventually the downpour of amendments ceased upon morning adjournment. However, the Senate did not vote on Maxwell's bill or even any of the amendments.