Unfortunately, it’s not that rare that our elected officials on just about every level violation Missouri’s open meetings law, which is also known as the Sunshine Law. It’s rare thing, however, when they openly admit doing so.
The Sunshine Law isn’t that hard to follow…or at least it shouldn’t be. It provides clear exceptions for when open meetings (and records) may be closed to the public. And those exceptions make sense—allowing our elected officials to freely discuss employees performance, consider land purchases without the risk of increasing the price to the taxpayers, consider sensitive legal matters, and more. There are legitimate and good reasons for closing a meeting.
Being educated about the law is also not hard. The state of Missouri has created an entire booklet about the Sunshine Law and it’s available for download at https://ago.mo.gov/docs/default-source/publications/missourisunshinelaw.pdf. Everyone, especially our elected officials, should be knowledgeable about it.
That certainly didn’t appear to be the case, however, during a recent Cuba City Council meeting. On April 7, the council adjourned into closed session to discuss a personnel matter. The Sunshine allows that for talking about “hiring, firing, disciplining, or promoting” a specific, identifiable employee.
Personnel matters are allowed in closed session for some very good reasons. Such discussions allow elected officials to speak freely about an employee without the potential for embarrassment to the worker, give a newly hired employee time to notify their current employer they are taking another job, keep a job applicant’s information private to keep an existing employer from retaliating against them, and permit an employee who may be fired to be notified in private rather than learning their fate during an open meeting.
On April 7, however, the council’s personnel discussion somehow devolved from “hiring, firing, disciplining, or promoting” into a discussion about an employee’s retirement and ultimately voting to accept her letter of retirement. While we don’t know how that happened, we do know one thing—nowhere in the Sunshine Law does it permit a closed session to talk about an employee’s retirement. It certainly appears the Cuba City Council members know that because every recent retirement (and resignation) has been handled in open session, but not this particular case.
If the council went into closed session for a legitimate reason, the moment it became clear the discussion was moving away from “hiring, firing, disciplining, or promoting” to someone’s retirement, the closed session should have ended and the discussion should have continued in open session.
Oddly enough, the council even admitted its mistake during its next meeting on April 19 when aldermen amended and then approved those closed session minutes. In the amendment, it was noted the aldermen had also discussed and approved allowing the employee to use her unused vacation and sick time to reach her full retirement date in addition to passing a motion to accept the retirement letter. In no way is that permitted in a closed session!
While this was a blatant violation of the Sunshine Law, others are more subtle…and common. Routinely governmental bodies, specifically school boards, accept resignations in closed session. That is clearly not allowed and there is really no reason to do it. The employee knows they are resigning; the board knows they are resigning; why can’t the public find out about it in a public meeting?
While government agencies continue to ignore requirements of the Sunshine Law, the Missouri Legislature is working now to weaken it. Currently on the state legislative agenda is Senate Bill 741, which would amend the existing Sunshine law as follows:
• Documents and communications "that do not have substantial administrative or operational value" would not be considered public records and could thus be made unobtainable through a records request. An amendment specifically allows the state to close any document kept by lawmakers and their staff "that contains information regarding proposed legislation or the legislative process."
• The amendment would allow "a group of members” of a public governmental body...“who are not acting on behalf of the entire public governmental body" to meet without that meeting being considered public.
• The amendment changes the three business days public bodies have to send an initial response to a records request to five days, and adds fees based on time it takes for custodians of records to redact documents.
Secret records, secret meetings, slower responses, and costlier records! Is that what Missouri taxpayers deserve? No!
“The whole point of the Sunshine Law is to make certain that the public has the information it needs to serve its role as the watchdog of a government,” Missouri Press Association Legal Counsel Jean Maneke said. “And so any time language like this is put in the Sunshine Law to narrow information that is available to the public, the public interest is harmed.”