Missouri bill would allow closed meetings with remote access
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.
Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Jefferson County, speaks on the floor of the Missouri House during the 2019 session.