For those of you who are emailing asking for an update on last week's hearing on House Bill 1445, here's a brief note.
The bill was taken up at the end of the session, in conjunction with House Bill 1444, which also includes a portion of the language included in HB 1445. Rep. Tim Jones (R-Eureka) testified to present the highlights of the two bills. The first witness testifying in support was Stan Berry, editor of the Poplar Bluff Daily American Republic, who told of a personal experience regarding sunshine law enforcement. The paper, after repeated discussions with a local school board over sunshine law violations, filed suit. In the course of the litigation, the court held that there was clearly a violation of the sunshine law by the five board members sued. The case was sent to a jury for a determination of whether it was a purposeful or knowing violation. The paper believed it had clear evidence of a purposeful violation. A board member, during the meeting where the law was violated, told the board it was illegal to hold the discussion in a closed meeting. The Mo. Attorney General had earlier sent a letter to the board indicating it was not a board subject for discussion. The superintendent told the board they could not discuss this subject in closed meeting. One of the board members even told a third party that it was "worth it" to have violated the law.
However, the jury found only a knowing violation for two of the five members and assessed fines of $250 and $150 respectively. (As an aside, this may have been the first fines in the state assessed by a jury for a "knowing" sunshine law violation.)
But to achieve this result, the paper incurred almost $100,000 in attorneys fees. Who can afford to litigate such violations? Berry asked the committee. We need a law that public bodies don't consider a joke, he opined.
Also testifying was Laura Bryant, Creve Coeur city councilwoman; David Cook and Michael Kelly, Mid-America Retail Grocers-Union Partnership; Don Hicks, Missouri Broadcasters Association; David Overfelt, Missouri Retailers Association; and a representative of the Missouri Press Association.
Of special interest was the fact that also testifying was Scott Eckersley, former general counsel for the former governor, Matt Blunt, who has some special experience dealing with sunshine law issues.
Testifying against the bill were the usual suspects.
The bill is still in committee. Anyone with connections to committee members can help by emailing your state representative who is on the committee and asking for their support in passing the bill out of committee.
Thanks to those who wrote requesting an update. We appreciate your support. Every email makes a difference!