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Bill to close records loophole advances

Bill to close records loophole advances

February 13th, 2013 in News

State senators must take one final vote to send Mike Kehoe's "closed records" bill to the House.

"This is the extension of the sunset that expired on Dec. 31, 2012, as it relates to the ability of certain public entities - you heard a lot about school districts, mainly - being able to keep their records confidential," Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, explained Monday afternoon when he first asked for debate on the bill.

"The (law) originally was introduced in 2002 and went to '08, then got extended to '12 - and this is, simply, just another extended period ... It would take the sunset out until 2017."

Because lawmakers created a Dec. 31, 2012, "sunset" date on closing those security records to public review, lawmakers want to pass a new restriction quickly. Kehoe's bill includes an "emergency clause" that would make the new law effective as soon as Gov. Jay Nixon signs it.

But the bill grew this week from a simple measure to Sen. Kurt Schaefer's more expansive measure making several changes to Missouri's Open Records/Open Meetings law that most people call the "Sunshine Law."

"I like your bill," the Columbia Republican told Kehoe Monday afternoon, "and, I will tell you, the issue of renewing the sunset on security plans for schools is something that I've had in a bill now for three years.

"But I've had it in a bill with some other things to strengthen Missouri's Sunshine Law, to create greater transparency so that the people of this state know exactly how their government functions."

Opposition to his bill kept the sunset extension from becoming law before it expired at the end of last year, he said.

After debating the measure Monday afternoon and again Tuesday morning, senators approved adding Schaefer's language to Kehoe's bill. It should come for a final vote later this week.

Schaefer noted both his proposal and Kehoe's bill were heard by the Senate's Judiciary Committee in the last couple of weeks.

"I find it ironic ... that a lot of the counties and municipalities that testified specifically against my bill - because they do not want to provide greater transparency for the citizens of the state of Missouri - supported part of your bill because they want part of it to pass, but not the rest," Schaefer said.

His amendment would require public bodies - like school boards, city councils and county commissions - to notify the public of a meeting and its agenda 48 hours before the meeting, instead of the current 24-hour notice.

He told reporters Tuesday the biggest stumbling block in the past has been "basically, making it easier for citizens who are alleging violations of the Sunshine Law to go into court and establish that. Remember, there are provisions in the law for that, already.

"But right now, they're very burdensome on the citizens - and this bill switches that burden over and puts it on the governmental entity."

He doesn't think his language will block the bill's progress the way it has the last three years.

"Everyone wants to renew the closure of the security plans," he explained. "I think that's the different dynamic this year."

Kehoe acknowledged Tuesday that some groups "don't exactly like pieces of (Schaefer's) bill, but I think it leans towards transparency. And, at the end of the day, the underlying bill that I introduced is very important to our school districts and governments."

Although much of the discussion has been about schools, Kehoe noted the proposed law also would close the security records for all public buildings, including city halls, courthouses and the Capitol.

It doesn't affect private schools or buildings, like Helias Catholic High School or Trinity Lutheran Church and School, because their records aren't "public" records in the first place.