As a child, I played "telephone." I know how that works -- how "I need ink" becomes "Your feet stink!" from one end to the other. No sane adult puts too much credence into one person's tale as to what another person said to them.
But at the same time, it seems that lately I've had enough strange tales about what has been said by certain folks that I cannot help but wonder about the source of these statements.
The first one actually came to me from the pages of a newspaper in the state. A little web-searching will probably take you to the source of this story. The short (and redacted) version is that a local city attorney announced at a city council meeting recently that people filng sunshine law complaints about the city council should be forewarned.
"Sometimes we need to move forward and go on the attack," he said. Apparently in recent weeks, two (two? He's complaining about TWO? Seriously!?) complaints had been filed with the Missouri Attorney General's office alleging sunshine law violations by the council.
Then this city attorney said the council should consider filing lawsuits against its residents who chose to exercise their rights as a citizen, if they believe the complaints are unfounded. He claimed he thought the city could collect their attorneys fees if it prevailed in such litigation.
And where he did get this bright idea of the city suing its own residents for the filing of these complaints? The city attorney said the Attorney General's office suggested taking this step. Yes, take note of that, my readers! The Missouri Attorney General's office, the public's protector of the rights of the sunshine law in this state, is now encouraging public bodies to sue citizens who file complaints?
Tell me it's not true. Please! Where are citizens who think there's been a sunshine law violation supposed to go? They have little options as it now stands to complain about such violations. Most of our state citizens cannot afford to file these suits themselves. The complaint to the AG's office is, in most cases, a person's ONLY means of access to seek resolution of the issue.
I can only hope that this is not an accurate statement of what was said in that phone conversation between the AG's office and the city attorney. Perhaps he misunderstood. After all, while there are provisions for filing "malicious prosecution" suits, filing a citizen complaint with the AG's office hardly rises to what I believe a court envisions in such litigation. Filing a complaint and filing a lawsuit are two totally different matters.
I'd be tempted to think that perhaps this was a misunderstanding, but....
This week, I get a call from an ex-police chief. He is calling to question about the exceptions in Chapter 610 that are expiring at the end of 2012 (610.021-18 and 19). We talked a little about those and then he tells me that he called the AG's office to ask them about those and was told that it didn't matter because those materials could still be closed under exception 1. In short, if a school district wants to meet with its local law enforcement to discuss school security, that would fall under "legal matters, causes of action and litigation...."
That type of convoluted analysis would not surprise me coming from a public body's attorney, attempting to shoe-horn something into a part of the law. it's wrong, but it wouldn't surprise me. But to hear that analysis of the law came from the state AG"s office? Surely not, I said. But he reassured me, identifying specifically the person who had told him that. Names are being omitted here to protect the guilty in the AG's office.
How could that be? Any lawyer who regularly deals with sunshine law issues is aware that there is case law interpreting that exception that specifically states that this exception can only be used where the public body can demonstrate "both a substantial likelihood that litigation may occur and a clear nexus between the (closure) and the anticipated litigation." The Court that wrote that said it was a "heavy burden." In short, this is a serious test that must be met and will not be taken lightly.
I would like to believe that, again, we have a miscommunciation here. But once you hear something like this often enough, you cannot help but believe that perhaps this isn't the old game of "telephone." Perhaps this kind of bad information is being regularly distributed to the public. I hope not. I hope there's a good explanation for all this. I'm pessimistic, I admit. But I'm waiting...
Meanwhile, on the other side of this game, let me note that I heard about another conversation this week relating to language that is likely to show up in a bill relating to the sunshine law that may be filed in the coming legislative session. it's no secret that Missouri Press Association has some changes they would like to see made in the sunshine law. That's a given every year. The organization, believing there might be some room for working with other organizations, has shared some of the language with those groups. This has included key organizations representing public governmental bodies.
Then I hear this week from someone who heard someone else ... you get the drift here, but apparently at least one spokesperson for one of those groups is telling members that the Press Association is going to eliminate all closed meetings and records, and other similar statements.
So, let me go on the record here. There's nothing of the sort in the language that the association is suggesting. Of course there are occasions when a closed meeting is appropriate. But those reasons are specific and limited and carefully spelled out. Don't assume when you hear a rumor like this that it's true. The association is in no position to dictate what will end up being filed by a legislator but the association has never proposed a bill with language like that and, as for me, I cannot imagine that such a proposal would ever be floated.
There. I've set the record on this issue straight. I wonder if we'll ever find out about the others?