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Missouri lawmakers need to tread carefully on a bill that would let state and local governments close their meetings to the public during emergencies.

The Kansas City Star reported Monday the bill has been approved by the House Judiciary Committee. By the time you read this, it could be approved by the full House.

The legislation would allow meetings to be closed to the public during emergencies caused by a contagious illness outbreak.

But the closure would only be allowed if the meetings remained accessible in other ways, such as live streaming or recordings available online. Members of the media still would be allowed to attend the meetings.

This would affect city councils, county commissions and schools boards to name a few.

Part of the problem was that it is past the deadline for bills to be filed, so the legislative measure was added to another bill dealing with the Sunshine Law, which is the state open meetings/records law. That bill, the Star reported, would have allowed lawmakers to withhold certain information from the public.

Rightfully, transparency advocates were outraged.

"This bill needs to be burned with fire," David Roland told the Star. He is the director of litigation at the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri. "It is a direct assault on citizens' ability to gather information about what their public officials are doing with the power and tax money the officials have been given."

Unfortunately, the House committee shot down an amendment that would have required closed meetings to be "essential business that cannot be reasonably postponed."

During this state of emergency, this bill does have merit. But for the sake of government transparency, any infringements of the Sunshine Law must be done sparingly.

COVID-19 has put us in uncharted territory in many ways. Public meetings are one of them. But for our government and our democracy to work, transparency is a necessity.

Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

News Tribune

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