Missouri Lawmakers Get to Work on Sunhsine Bill…

What began as a debate Monday on a bill to reinstate expired security exemptions in the Missouri Sunshine Law turned into an attempt by one senator to expand access to records.

Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, brought up Senate Bill 139 for debate on the Senate floor Monday afternoon. Under Kehoe’s bill, exemptions for security planning and response guidelines by governmental bodies will be put back in place. The exemptions, put in place more than 10 years ago following the September 11 attacks, expired at the end of 2012.

Only a few minutes after debate began, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, took to the floor to offer an amendment to, in his words, strengthen the law. The amendment makes it easier to sue public bodies for violations of the law and requires 48 hours notice of public meetings, rather than the current 24 hours….

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis, introduced an amendment to the amendment to require closed meetings to be tape-recorded. The tapes would only be reviewable by a judge when trying to determine if a violation of the Sunshine Law had occurred, Sifton said.

The bill also reinstates the security exemptions.

As Missouri Sunshine Law Turns 40, Changes Proposed

For the 40th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law, Sen. Kurt Schaefer is pushing a bill to limit closed meeting discussions by public officials and make it easier to prove when violations have taken place.

Schaefer, R-Columbia, has sponsored some of the proposed changes to the state’s open-records law for each of the past two years and expects more action this year as lawmakers also address anti-terrorism exemptions that expired at the end of 2012…

Under Schaefer’s proposal, which has not been scheduled for a hearing, public bodies would be required to include summaries of closed-meeting discussions in the minutes of those meetings. In addition, closed meetings to discuss litigation or potential litigation could only take place after a lawsuit has been filed or after a credible threat of a lawsuit over a specific action has been received.

To make enforcement easier, government agencies or boards that violate the Sunshine Law would be hit with a mandatory fine of $100 rather than a discretionary fine of as much as $1,000. When a knowing violation is proved, the proposal awards attorney fees to the party bringing the enforcement lawsuit. Under current law, a judge is allowed to award attorney costs but not required to do so.

Enforcement now, Schaefer said, “is a fairly complicated process that I don’t know that government entities really fear.”

Missouri National Guard Releases Looting Records from Joplin Tornado

The Missouri National Guard has released records confirming that four soldiers were disciplined for taking merchandise from the ruins of a Wal-Mart store in Joplin one day after the tornado that devastated the city a year ago.

The names of the soldiers were redacted from the records released to the Globe by the Guard on Tuesday. They are identified only as three specialists and a sergeant who were part of a team of 16 soldiers assigned to look for survivors and assist in recovery operations on May 23, 2011, at the Wal-Mart store at 1501 S. Range Line Road.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week that the Guard did not respond to an open-records request for details about purported post-tornado looting by Guard members.

Brig. Gen. Randy Alewel, commander of the 35th Engineer Brigade, had acknowledged that members of his unit took items after the tornado that claimed 161 lives and wiped out thousands of homes and businesses in Joplin. But Alewel had not provided any further details.

While the Guard is exempted from the Missouri Sunshine Law, Maj. Tammy Spicer said last week that the Guard seeks to provide “the maximum amount of information allowed under the laws that we follow.”

The 13 pages of memorandums released Tuesday reveal that an internal investigation determined that the soldiers took merchandise under the impression that it was going to be discarded by Wal-Mart.

Two specialists took hand-held Nintendo video game players valued at $138 and $169, according to the memos. A third specialist took a Kodak Easyshare camera priced at about $115. The sergeant took a notebook-size Nintendo video game player, some Xbox games and a headset, with an estimated combined retail value of $354.

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Missouri AG Releases Dome Plans

Kudos to Missouri’s AG for doing the right thing!

Attorney General Chris Koster released the Rams’ proposal for upgrading the Edward Jones Dome in compliance with Sunshine Law requests to the state of Missouri.

Koster had announced May 7 that the state would release the documents today unless a judge said the records should remain closed. Since May 7, no representative of any party to the negotiations has attempted to articulate an exception to Missouri’s Sunshine Law, and thus the documents are being released.

Missouri AG Sees The Light Under the Dome…

Victory!

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster on Monday said he intends to publicly release documents next week related to the St. Louis Rams’ plans to renovate the Edward Jones Dome.

The secret plans have been at the center of a legal dispute between the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and the Post-Dispatch.

The CVC and the Rams, as required by the team’s lease for the Dome, have traded proposals on how to make the building a “first-tier” stadium. If the CVC can’t meet that standard by 2015, the team could terminate the lease and move out of St. Louis.

The CVC, a public agency that operates the taxpayer-funded Dome, contends that the Rams’ May 1 renovation plan and other documents requested by the Post-Dispatch are not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law, the state’s open-records law. Last week, the matter went to court as the CVC and the news organization sued each other.

In  a letter sent Monday to St. Louis Circuit Judge Bryan Hettenbach, Koster and Patricia Churchill, who heads the attorney general’s government affairs division, said that the state will release the documents Monday.

$18,500 for three months’ worth of e-mails?

A frequent tactic in the FOI game is the eye-popping fee for redaction and records preparation. I’d like to say this is an unusual price tag, but I’ve run across several similar stories in the past few months:

A group of taxpayers in the Rockwood School District has been told it must pay $18,005 for a public records request, prompting the group to ask the state auditor’s office to review the matter as part of an upcoming audit of the district.

On April 16, the group, which goes by the name Rockwood Stakeholders for Real Solutions, requested copies of 3½ months of emails sent to and from the district email accounts of School Board members, the board secretary, the superintendent and the president of the teachers union.

After informing the group that the request would involve thousands of pages of records, district spokeswoman Kim Cranston asked the group to be more specific.

The taxpayer group responded by saying it was seeking assurance that district email accounts weren’t used to solicit support for Prop R — a $43.2 million bond issue that failed at the polls April 3 — or to endorse any of the School Board candidates. Such activity could run afoul of election law.

 

ACLU sues St. Louis over inmate grievance records…

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the city of St. Louis, asking a judge to make the city turn over jail records related to inmate grievances.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the suit file Wednesday accuses the city’s corrections division of ignoring repeated requests over the past four months for records under the Missouri Sunshine Law.

The suit seeks an injunction forcing release of the records. It also asks the judge to find the city in violation of the law and to impose civil penalties.

The two jails in St. Louis came under criticism in 2011 after a series of jail breaks. The ACLU has also been critical of treatment of inmates at the jails, citing sexual harassment, medical neglect and other abuses.

In Chesterfield, Missouri, Driving So Drunk You Pee Your Pants = Illegal Parking Citation

A Patch columnist spins a tale sure to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck:

I filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office about Chesterfield refusing to release a 2011 arrest report, incident and accident reports of ex-sports announcer Dan McLaughlin, as required by state law. McLaughlin was arrested DWI in Chesterfield, twice.

I hired a lawyer to represent me and possibly file suit in circuit court to force the Chesterfield police department to obey the state’s Sunshine Law. (This law upholds the public’s right to participate in the public’s business, and see its documents—without cost or hassle.)

I didn’t hire just any attorney, but one who for 30 years was a city attorney for a number of county municipalities. He also just retired after serving a quarter of a century as the city judge in Kirkwood.

Chesterfield is taking a somewhat odd stand here. I have requested similar reports of accidents and DWI arrests from neighboring Town and Country police for an online newsletter I write, and was immediately given the reports. I have spoken to two people at the state Attorney General’s Office and they have agreed that under the law, Chesterfield owes me some reports.

The real money graf:

I eventually got a copy of the court documents and quickly realized why the judge or the prosecutor probably didn’t want anyone to see the file.

On the night of his arrest in 2010, McLaughlin was falling down drunk, had slurred speech, offered a bribe to the officer to drive him home, refused to take a breath test and then refused to sign the citation.

On the DWI charge he was given a 2-year suspended imposition of sentence (SIS) with no conditions, such as doing community service, attending a driver improvement school, or attending a DWI Victim’s Impact Panel. McLaughlin was required to do nothing and got a probation that would keep his driving record clear of any hint of a DWI guilty plea.

The charge of Failure to Drive in a Lane (weaving) was reduced to ILLEGAL PARKING and he was fined $350 and $26.50 in court costs.

 

 

 

An Interesting Twist: Government Sues Newspaper….

From my friends at Patch….

The City of Brentwood sued the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Aug. 19 seeking a declaratory judgment from St. Louis County Judge David Vincent concerning a document requested by the newspaper.

According to the petition for declaratory judgment, the document is a copy of a Letter of Understanding regarding the repayment of overtime between Brentwood and Local 2665 IAFF, the union representing the City of Brentwood firefighters.

The Post-Dispatch requested the document as part of an investigation by reporter and Brentwood resident Paul Hampel that exposed more than 24 years of Brentwood firefightersreceiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay for hours they did not work.

A Nice Editorial On The Toothless Missouri Sunshine Law…

The Post-Dispatch has been a consistent voice on the need for reform in Missouri:

Missouri’s law, however, is too weak to put fear in the minds of those public officials afraid to do their business in the light of day, whether it be shouting from the rooftops or whispering in quiet city council chambers.

Brentwood hardly is alone. We brought attention on this page last month to the dilemma at Missouri Employers Mutual, a state-created workers compensation company whose board members are appointed by Gov. Jay Nixon and yet won’t give the public the most basic of public information.

The company qualifies for certain federal subsidies specifically by acting like a public board and giving the governor nominal control. But it refuses to follow the very law that gives citizens the kind of oversight that should be the trade-off for its public profit.

Part of the problem lies with Mr. Nixon, who, in 16 years as Missouri attorney general, mostly paid lip service to the importance of the Sunshine Law. Mr. Nixon’s successor as attorney general, Chris Koster, hasn’t been much better. Neither Democrat was, or has been, very willing to take government bodies to court to enforce the law. The same is true of local prosecutors.

 

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