JEFFERSON CITY - Any public governmental meeting conducted through electronic communication-conference call, video conference, internet chat or internet message board-would now have to be made accessible to the public, under a new bill proposed by Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia.
The state's open meetings law and access to public records constitute what is known as the Sunshine Law. This bill aims at broadening the existing the Sunshine Law.
The bill has bipartisan support in the House and similar measures have been proposed in the Senate by Republican senators. Chair of the Judiciary Committee Rep. Richard Byrd, R-Kirkwood, complimented Harris on the proposed measure.
Because of the changes in technology, Harris said, there has been a change in the way the government does business.
"We need to make sure that the Sunshine Law is updated and upgraded to reflect those changes in technology and to take into account those changes in the way that public government bodies can do business," Harris said during a House Judiciary Committee public hearing Wednesday.
Echoing Harris' sentiments was counsel for Missouri Press Association Jean Maneke, who testified in support of the proposed changes.
"Technology has changed in the last few years such that public officials are now using the internet to communicate, whether it is by e-mail or by using some chatroom software," Maneke said. "All of these are areas that the current Sunshine Law is somewhat vague on and I think there is a real need to tighten up that language."
No one voiced opposition to the bill.
Under the bill, if government officials are voting by telephone or e-mail, the public must be allowed access to that vote. Also, the government would have to notify the public ahead of time the mode by which the meeting is to be conducted and the location.
The legislation specifically spells out that anyone must be allowed to record a public meeting by audiotape, videotape or other electronic means.
"But it won't be a free for all," Harris said. "It is within the discretion and guidance of the public body as to how those meetings will be taped."
The bill also allows public bodies to respond by e-mail or any other electronic means if the request for records was made in the same format.
Charles Davis, professor of journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and director of Freedom of Information Center said that such a reform was long overdue, given the dramatic change in the way the government functions now. He said he is optimistic about the proposed reforms in this area.
"I hope that it passes."