Some sunshine law issues remind me of a flu bug. The sun shines, it's warm outside and the flu bug goes away. But the minute the days get darker and colder, here it comes again. Sunshine violations start occurring. It's inevitable.
Agenda defects are like that. You can educate all you want -- some public bodies still seem to be unable to grasp how to create an agenda that falls within what the law prescribes. Section 610.020 is pretty basic: "All public governmental bodies shall give notice of the time, date and place of each meeting, and its tentative agenda, in a manner reasonably calculated to advise the public of the matters to be considered...." If a closed meeting is anticipated, 610.022 says "A public governmental body proposing to hold a closed meeting or vote shall give notice of the time, date and place of such closed meeting or vote and the reason for holding it by reference to the specific exception allowed pursuant to the provisions of section 610.021...."
A few days ago, I was given a notice posted by a county commission in the state. It lists meetings set for the month of February. Indeed, it gives notice of the time and date of every meeting it plans to hold in the month of February. That's an unusual format for a meeting notice, but by no means improper, at least so far. It tells where the meeting will be held. As to a tentative agenda, one meeting lists approval and payment of last month's bills and that information will be presented on a certain program. Another meeting indicates information on emergency operations plans will be given. One last meeting notes it will concern the month's payroll and bills will be approved.
Is this notice sufficient? Well, is this ALL the business that will be discussed at those meetings? There are six meetings noticed up on that agenda. Only three contain items of business. Clearly there are three meetings noticed up without an agenda regarding matters to be discussed. And I suspect far more than the items on the agenda will come before the commission at the meetings that do list the few agenda items.
Further, at the bottom of the notice, it says "The tentative agenda of this meeting (which meeting does it mean? All meetings? Which meeting is the "this" referring to?) also includes a vote to close part of this meeting (here those words again) pursuant to Section 610.021. Which part of Section 610.021 is the clerk referring to? No "specific exception" is cited in this sentence, which is not surprising since it also doesn't make clear which meeting it refers to. And it clearly is separated from the list of meetings so perhaps the truth is that it doesn't refer to ANY of the above-listed meetings, but is just a form sentence put on this agenda notice.
This clerk is not alone in needing help understanding duties under the sunshine law. Repeatedly I hear that state agencies educate public bodies about the law. I hear that statewide associations do training regularly, that its members are hungry to understand what they need to do. But I would argue that there is not enough incentive for members of public bodies to make the effort to get it right. Watchdog citizens who point out errors are tagged as "troublemakers." Newspapers try to educate the public bodies in their area, but often they are viewed as being adversaries.
A sunshine law bill has been filed this session by Sen. Kurt Schaefer (Senate Bill 122). It contains some desperately needed changes in the sunshine law. It's time, on this 40th anniversary of the first Sunshine Law in Missouri, to encourage a little more sunshine in the state.