The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about lasting changes that are referred to as "a new normal."
Unfortunately, one of those changes has been lax compliance with transparency in government, particularly the state's open meetings/records law, known as the Sunshine Law.
Some public bodies have used the pandemic as an excuse to limit attendance/participation in public meetings.
In some cases, the change was justifiable on a temporary basis. Attendance was limited to in-person meetings, and some public meetings switched entirely to virtual meetings. That was understandable during the height of the pandemic.
But public bodies need to realize that they need to do everything possible to allow people to attend and participate in public meetings, even if the meetings are virtual.
One recent court case exemplified the problem.
As we recently reported, a Maries County judge ruled that the Maries County Commission violated the Sunshine Law when by holding a closed meeting in April 2020.
Maries County Judge John Berger agreed with Ron and Anne Calzone, of Dixon, who filed a lawsuit saying the County Commission illegally held a meeting April 6, 2020, and never announced publicly at an open meeting of the commission their intent to close the meeting to the public. The Calzones also claimed the commission did not cite any specific exception under state law that would allow them to close the meeting to the public.
The Calzones alleged the meeting was for the commission to consider an ordinance related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which would include a stay-at-home order. The Calzones said they wanted to express their opinions on these matters.
The commission argued Sunshine Law deviations were allowed by Gov. Mike Parson's "stay-at-home order" issued during the pandemic.
The judge disagreed: "The Court is not aware of any emergency clause to the Sunshine Law or elsewhere that would excuse the defendants from giving adequate notice of attending their meeting by phone or moving the meeting to another space to allow adequate distancing," Berger wrote in his order.
We urge public bodies to learn a lesson from this case. Make sure the public always has access to your meetings and allow ample opportunity for input, even if you're dealing with a passionate public weighing in on contentious issues.