Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013
Push for exemptions adds to debate over Missouri’s open-records law
Law’s advocates hope it can be strengthened as it undergoes changes.
By CHRIS BLANK
The Associated Press
JEFFERSON CITY Legislative efforts to exempt security-related documents from public disclosure also could aid attempts to strengthen Missouri’s open-records law on the 40th anniversary of its creation.
Public safety, education and local government organizations want the legislature to reinstate security-related exemptions to the open-records and meetings law that expired at the end of 2012. The groups contend the information helps protect schools, college campuses, hospitals and power plants, and that the sensitive records do not belong in the public domain.
“We have a very strong concern about the issue that these records are open,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association. “We think they’ve been confidential for a very good reason — to keep students and staff safe.”
For those looking to strengthen the Sunshine Law, the hope is that lawmakers will be willing to add other changes with the security-related exemptions.
“This is the year that the exception definitely is on the radar screen, and that can only help us,” said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association.
One expired exemption covered operational guidelines and policies developed by law enforcement, public safety, first responders or public health authorities for preventing and responding to terrorism incidents. The other dealt with security systems and structural plans for property owned or leased by cities, counties, school districts, public colleges and other government entities. It also shielded information submitted by private entities for governmental agencies to develop plans for protecting infrastructure.
The House and Senate each have approved separate versions. Neither proposal won final approval before the legislature’s annual weeklong midsession break. House Speaker Tim Jones and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said during a joint news conference Thursday that they want to continue the exemptions.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon called for reinstating the exemptions during January news conferences with numerous law enforcement officials.
The Senate version includes a requirement that most governmental bodies give notice 48 hours before meetings instead of the current 24 hours. In addition, the Senate bill would reduce fines for violations from up to $1,000 to $100 but no longer require a finding that violations have been committed “knowingly.” The government also would shoulder the burden of proving a meeting, record or vote could be closed.
Organizations representing cities and counties have raised concerns about proposed expansions. They said additional notice before meetings could pose administrative challenges and have objected to the potential of fines for unwitting violations.