April 2, 2020

If you have dealings with members of a Missouri state or local governmental body, a bit of background about the Missouri Sunshine Law may be important and helpful.

Even during a public health crisis or state of emergency, provisions of our Sunshine Law are in effect, and elected members of public governmental bodies and government employees should respect federal laws and state statutes as they seek to do their duties in keeping citizens safe and government open.

Neither the Sunshine Law nor the citizens of Missouri have seen such critical times as we’re experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation and the world. This review of the Sunshine Law focuses primarily on public access to meetings and records, both in good times and in challenging times.

The Sunshine Law, opening Missouri governmental meetings and public records, was first passed into law in 1973. Since then, roughly six paragraphs of state statute have been transformed by the General Assembly and by state court decisions into dozens of pages of statutes.

Chapter 610, Revised Statutes of the State of Missouri, is where the Sunshine Law resides. Early in the chapter, Missouri legislators set a liberal standard in the public policy of the law, saying: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.” It emphasizes that sections of the Sunshine Law “shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy” (Sec. 610.011).

Currently, Sec. 610.021 lists 24 exceptions when closed meetings, closed records, and closed votes of a governmental body are authorized, so certain exceptions to the Sunshine Law are in place that may deter some public accessibility due to specific instances and conditions.

The Sunshine Law does allow public governmental bodies to conduct meetings among its members electronically, “by means of communication equipment, including, but not limited to, conference call, video conference, internet chat, or internet message board” (Sec. 610.010.5). But, if a public governmental body plans to hold a meeting in such a way to protect the public, for instance, from transmission of a disease, the body must give proper notice to the public prior to the meeting.

“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 matters to be considered . . .” (Sec. 610.020).

For meetings to be conducted by telephone or other electronic means, “the notice of the meeting shall identify the mode by which the meeting will be conducted and the designated location where the public may observe and attend the meeting. If a public body plans to meet by internet chat, internet message board, or other computer link, it shall post a notice of the meeting on its website in addition to its principal office and shall notify the public how to access that meeting” (Sec. 610.020).

Notice of such public meetings are required to be given at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting, exclusive of weekends and holidays. If it becomes necessary to hold a meeting on less than 24 hours’ notice, or at a place that is not reasonably accessible to the public, or at a time that is not reasonably convenient to the public, “the nature of the good cause justifying that departure from the normal requirements shall be stated in the minutes” (Sec. 610.020.4).

House Bill 2725, a bill currently on the Missouri House of Representatives’ perfection calendar, would affect public access to governmental meetings during an outbreak of contagious illness resulting in the Governor or General Assembly declaring a state of emergency. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold), would, if it is reasonably possible, guide public governmental bodies to “live stream” meetings via the internet. And, the bill allows the public after such a meeting to submit written testimony to the body which shall be made part of any official record of the meeting and made accessible to the public within 48 hours after the meeting. Members of the news media would be allowed to attend any such meeting in person.

Recently, the office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt provided some guidance to public governmental bodies on complying with the Sunshine Law during current times.

“A public governmental body should always ensure that it maximizes the amount of notice given to the public before hosting any public meetings, whether in-person or via alternative means. As a best practice and if possible, public governmental bodies should take advantage of their website and social media pages to post recordings or live streams of public meetings.

“Along those lines, the Attorney General’s Office encourages public governmental bodies to be mindful of the nature of business discussed or decided during states of emergencies, such as public health crises. For example, it would be appropriate to continue to discuss and decide routine and essential matters. However, given the Sunshine Law’s goal of maximizing governmental transparency, as a best practice it may be advisable for a public governmental body to postpone discussions and votes on higher-profile matters until the state of emergency or crisis has been resolved and the public could resume attending and participating in meetings in person, if such a postponement would not jeopardize the matter.”

Sec. 610.020.1 requires that the public governmental body shall notify the public how to access meetings. “Depending on the circumstances, this may include a phone number the public can use to dial in to listen to the meeting or the web address where a video feed can be accessed.”

The Attorney General’s Office concluded: “The Missouri Sunshine Law is meant to be liberally construed, and the exceptions to openness are to be interpreted as strictly as possible in order to promote openness. Emergency meetings would be considered an exception to openness and should only be held when necessary.”

More information about the Sunshine Law can be found at: www.ago.mo.gov/missouri-law/sunshine-law.

Contact Lathrop GPM Consulting if we can be of assistance on any matter that affects you and your interaction with Missouri state and local government. Call us at 573-469-4172, or email info@lgpmconsulting.com.