A group of members of a school board in the state has decided they can save time at meetings by holding discussions of school board business in between meetings by e-mail. Apparently, board members are e-mailing among themselves about matters, both open and closed, and copying the custodian of records for the board with these messages on a regular basis. The custodian of records told a reporter the other day she couldn't begin to give the paper copies of these e-mails, in response to a sunshine law request, because there were so many of them and it would take far too long to sort through all them to determine which were closed documents and which were open records.
Ah, where do I begin with a mess like this? Sure, section 610.025 allows members of a public body to communicate about public business by "electronic means" which one assumes includes e-mails, so long as a copy is provided to the custodian of records. Clearly, the custodian of records has an obligation to provide those in response to a sunshine law request, because that same statute says they are public records. And it is never an excuse that there are so many public records that the custodian cannot sort through them to meet that person's duty to response to a request for access to records. Taking that kind of a position is clearly a violation of the law for the custodian of records.
But can a public body meet via e-mail and never physically hold a meeting? I don't think so. Indeed, a meeting is "any meeting of a ... body ... at which public business is discussed... whether such meeting is conducted in person or by means of communication equipment ...." (Section 610.010 (5).)
Was it the intent of the Missouri legislature to say that public bodies could hold discussions of public business by e-mail and avoid thereby holding public meetings so long as copies were provided to the custodian of records? Section 610.020 talks about giving the public notice of meetings to be held by "Internet chat" and how that requires notice to the public. Clearly, there is no notice of these discussions to the public. And when you go back to the very foundation of the sunshine law, it is clear in Section 610.011 that "deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public...." It's pretty hard to be open to the public when the public has to go retrieve your e-mails to know about your deliberations and then is told that it's too hard for the custodian to sort these e-mails out to provide them in response to a sunshine law request.
I think this school board needs to go back for a little sunshine law education! And class can't start soon enough!