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Maxwell strengthens Sunshine Law

February 28, 2000
By: Jennifer Lutz
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 858, HB 1718

JEFFERSON CITY - One Senator is trying to make the sun burn a little hotter on government officials who do not cooperate with the law.

Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, has proposed a bill that would strengthen the current Sunshine Law. His legislation would make it illegal to intentionally or unintentionally not provide information that is available for the public.

"No one who gives people records pays a penalty, only when they deny access are they penalized," Maxwell said.

He said it has been brought to his attention that there have been some instances when a government agency would rather pay the $500 fine than hand over the public information.

"Five hundred dollars isn't the kind of deterrent to close government down," Maxwell said.

His bill would stiffen fines from a minimum of $500 to a maximum $25,000, depending upon the severity, whether the agency is a repeat offender and the size of the jurisdiction.

But the idea of tougher penalties has run into opposition from an influential group -- the Missouri Municipal League.

"The penalties are outrageous," said Gary Markenson, the executive director of Missouri Municipal League. He testified against Maxwell's bill when it was in the Senate Financial and Governmental Organization Committee on Feb. 17. "It seems a little bit harsh."

Markenson said he didn't have a problem with raising the maximum amount to $5000, but $25,000 was too much.

"Do we really want to fine library board members $25,000 because they didn't properly post when they would hold a meeting?" he said.

Another problem Markenson cited about the bill was that several government agencies, such as library and zoning boards, do not hold regular office hours. It would be tough for people to respond to anything regarding a Sunshine Law within three days.

Yet Maxwell argues that the three day time period is current law, not something he is adding.

Public government agencies are required to make its meetings open, and available for the public to attend. There are several instances when a group can close its meetings and records -- for example when discussing real estate, employees or legal actions.

"The best solution for any board member or government agency is to give people the records," Maxwell said.