One of the most important things that members of a public body do is to cast their votes. Making a decision, taking a stand -- that's why members of a public body are elected to represent their constituents. But one public body, which shall remain not only nameless but also undescribed to protect their attorney (who may need an excuse), yesterday pulled a fast one in order to cast secret votes and avoid taking a stand on a controversial decision.
They were selecting a person to fill a vacancy on the public body. Apparently this attorney had read the law enough to realize they couldn't make this decision in a closed meeting because, of course, none of the exceptions in 610.021 would have covered filling a vacancy on the board. Or maybe their attorney was smart enough to know if they voted in a closed meeting, the law specifically requires that the vote on whom to name to fill the vacancy would have necessarily been taken by roll-call vote and put in the minutes.
Instead, these board members held their vote in open session. Section 610.015 requires that votes in an open meeting be recorded. If a roll-call vote is taken in an open session, it must be recorded and attributed to the board member. If it was not a roll-call vote, then it was what the law terms a "public vote." Most sane people figure a "public vote" is one where the chair calls for the "ayes" and "nos" and records the vote in that fashion. The term is defined as "any vote ... cast at any public meeting of any public governmental body." ANY vote. ANY.
And, further, that same section says that "All ... public votes shall be open to the public for inspection...." That simply ties with the language in Section 610.011 that "It is the public policy of this state that ... votes... be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law."
But what did this body do? Its members cast their votes for the interim board member by secret ballot, which then were passed to the body's attorney, who tallied up the votes and announced the winner. The vote total was not announced or made public.
Is that a public vote? Was it open for inspection? Does "open to the public" mean you have to make a sunshine law request to see these secret ballots? Clearly, the law mandates that these ballots must be made available for public inspection upon a sunshine law request for them, since they are public records of a public governmental body.
But what about the vote? Can you take a secret ballot vote in an open meeting? That hasn't been discussed specifically in a case in Missouri, but if the statute for votes in closed meetings mandates roll-call votes so that the public can "see" how each member voted, then it would seem clear that the intent of the law is that the public be allowed to "see" how each member votes in an open meeting and if they choose not to vote by voice vote, then they should not, under the law, be allowed to hide how they voted by a secret ballot vote.
For this public body and its attorney, it's time to crawl out from under the rock into the sunshine.