Mis­souri bill would al­low closed meet­ings with re­mote ac­cess

The Kansas City Star - - Lee's Summit Journal - BY JA­SON HAN­COCK jhan­[email protected]­star.com Ja­son Han­cock: 573-634-3565, @J_Han­cock

Mis­souri law­mak­ers have fast tracked leg­is­la­tion that would al­low state and lo­cal govern­ment meet­ings to be closed to the pub­lic dur­ing an emer­gency caused by a con­ta­gious ill­ness out­break— as long as they re­main ac­ces­si­ble in other ways.

The bill, ap­proved by the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Mon­day morn­ing, could be voted on by the full House later this week. It spec­i­fies that changes to open meet­ings law only go into ef­fect dur­ing a for­mally de­clared state of emer­gency.

Un­der its pro­vi­sions, any meet­ing closed to the pub­lic be­cause of a pub­lic health cri­sis must be live streamed on­line. If a govern­ment en­tity doesn’t have the ca­pac­ity to live stream, then the meet­ings must be recorded and made avail­able on­line. Writ­ten tes­ti­mony from the pub­lic must be per­mit­ted and made a part of any of­fi­cial record, and cre­den­tialed mem­bers of the me­dia must be al­lowed to at­tend meet­ings in per­son.

The changes would apply to ev­ery govern­ment en­tity that is sub­ject to Mis­souri’s Sun­shine Law, from the leg­is­la­ture to city coun­cils to school boards.

The goal, ac­cord­ing to the bill’s spon­sor, is to en­sure govern­ment is able to con­tinue func­tion­ing dur­ing a pub­lic health emer­gency with­out putting cit­i­zens in dan­ger or sac­ri­fic­ing trans­parency.

“We have to be able to make sure we pro­tect the pub­lic, and we have to be able to pro­tect ac­ces­si­bil­ity and ac­count­abil­ity,” said state Rep. Mary El­iz­a­beth Cole­man, a Jef­fer­son County Repub­li­can spon­sor­ing the bill. “We are deal­ing not with a bliz­zard, but with win­ter. Like win­ter, we can get through it by be­ing pre­pared.”

The spread of coro­n­avirus prompted the Mis­souri Se­nate to ad­journ un­til at least the end of the month and the House to ex­pe­dite work on the state’s bud­get in the hopes of leav­ing town on Thurs­day.

The bill ap­proved Mon­day orig­i­nally was far more sweep­ing, mak­ing changes to the Sun­shine Law that would have al­lowed law­mak­ers to with­hold cer­tain in­for­ma­tion from the pub­lic. Trans­parency ad­vo­cates were out­raged at the idea that law­mak­ers would make such sub­stan­tial changes to open records law at a time when the pub­lic may not feel com­fort­able trav­el­ing to Jef­fer­son City to voice con­cerns.

“This bill needs to be burned with fire,” said David Roland, direc­tor of lit­i­ga­tion at the lib­er­tar­ian Free­dom Cen­ter of Mis­souri. “It is a di­rect as­sault on cit­i­zens’ abil­ity to gather in­for­ma­tion about what their pub­lic of­fi­cials are do­ing with the power and tax money the of­fi­cials have been given.”

The fil­ing dead­line for leg­is­la­tion has al­ready closed, so Cole­man said her bill was sim­ply a con­ve­nient ve­hi­cle for the coro­n­avirus-in­spired pro­vi­sions.

Sev­eral other amend­ments to the bill were de­bated, in­clud­ing one of­fered by Demo­cratic state Rep. Robert Sauls of In­de­pen­dence that would have re­stricted govern­ment en­ti­ties from clos­ing meet­ings dur­ing a pub­lic health cri­sis un­less they plan to con­duct “es­sen­tial busi­ness that can­not be rea­son­ably post­poned.”

“This is a check on big govern­ment,” Sauls told the com­mit­tee. “And it en­sures that this well in­ten­tioned bill stays that way.”

Sev­eral leg­is­la­tors ex­pressed con­cern with the amend­ment and how a court could ul­ti­mately in­ter­pret what busi­ness is con­sid­ered es­sen­tial. The com­mit­tee re­jected the amend­ment.

Rep. Gina Mit­ten, a St. Louis County Demo­crat, said she agrees with the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple of Sauls amend­ment but un­der­stands the con­cerns.

“We’re all mak­ing some hard choices right now,” she said. “We’re talk­ing about lim­it­ing trans­parency and ac­cess in govern­ment. And those are dif­fi­cult things to wres­tle with.”

The bill is ex­pected to be de­bated by the full House later this week when it re­turns to pass the state bud­get. It would then have to work its way through the Se­nate to the gover­nor’s desk be­fore May 15.

TIM BOMMEL

Rep. Mary El­iz­a­beth Cole­man, R-Jef­fer­son County, speaks on the floor of the Mis­souri House dur­ing the 2019 ses­sion.

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