Our Opinion: Closed session veils public policy talks
Friday, January 6, 2012
Negotiation is not litigation.
The Jefferson City Council recently held closed discussions with St. Martins officials regarding annexation boundaries. Jefferson City officials justified closure by contending an agreement would constitute a settlement to avoid potential litigation.
We find this justification weak — at best.
First, the discussion — which the public was not privy to — apparently focused on drawing an annexation boundary. The dividing line would separate potential westward expansion by Jefferson City from possible eastern expansion by St. Martins.
This is negotiation. It is a public policy discussion that affects residents of both communities, as well as people who might become, or might be excluded from becoming, residents of those communities.
If the discussion had centered on litigating the matter, that could qualify as a closed session permitted by Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
The Sunshine Law specifies public bodies may, not must, close meetings to deal with specific exemptions, including: “Legal actions, causes of action or litigation.”
That language was severely weakened by an attorney’s general’s opinion, which concluded a meeting could be closed to discuss causes of action where the public body is a potential plaintiff or defendant, even if litigation had not yet commenced.
That interpretation leaves much wiggle room. Nearly everything is a matter of potential litigation.
The key counter-balance is found in the law itself, which advises its provisions “shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy.”
We commend those council members who interpret the Sunshine Law correctly and challenge the cavalier use of close sessions.
When a vote is sought to adjourn into closed session, we encourage our City Council members, and all public officials, to ask themselves: Why does this activity need to be hidden from public view?