JEFFERSON CITY - Embracing the purpose of the nation's "Sunshine Week," Missouri's auditor has released a report detailing multiple violations of the state's Sunshine Law by local and state officials.
Missouri's Sunshine Law sets forth rules for government officials to hold open meetings that the public can attend and answer requests for public information in a timely fashion. While the law requires officials to hold open meetings, it does allow for closed meetings to be held for specific reasons. These reasons include discussions of personal or legal matters such as the employment of public officials. Even though it allows for closed meetings, the law still requires for formal minutes, or written records, to be taken at the meetings.
Among the reported violations were failures to maintain minutes of both open and closed meetings, discussion of issues during a closed session other than what was presented on the agenda and a lack of adequate policies to deal with public requests for information.
The report, issued by State Auditor Tom Schweich on Monday, examines 300 audit reports from January 2010 to December 2011 and specifically examines violations from 55 of the audits.
In 34 of the violations, the report states officials failed to properly document reasons for holding a closed meeting, while in 26 they did not discuss issues permitted under state law in closed meetings.
Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto said officials should always maintain proper records, even during closed session.
"(Closed session records) generally never do see the light of day, but they are there for historical purposes," Otto said.
Doug Crews, the executive director of Missouri Press Association, said he was not entirely surprised at the report's results but having 20 percent of the audit reports in violation of the law was still high. Crews said MPA pushes for changes to state law in order to make information more open for the public. There is currently a bill in the Senate that would change certain parts of Missouri's open records law, including notifying the public 48 hours before a instead of the current 24 hour period.
Among other changes the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, would also change language regarding fines for violating the Sunshine Law. Currently, a knowing violation of the law could result in a fine up to $1,000. If passed, the bill would eliminate the requirement for a breach of the law to be a knowing violation and make the fine exactly $100.
Crews said there need to be more "teeth" to the law, which is something Schaefer's bill would address. He also said the state attorney general has made training public officials a priority, but this type of training is not currently required.
"If you are in elected office, you should know about the Sunshine Law," Crews said. "Any type of training would be a plus."
Schaefer's bill was introduced in early February but no action has been taken on it since.