JEAN MANEKE

Running afoul of Missouri’s open government laws could carry a smaller financial penalty but no longer require proof the law knowingly was broken under legislation before a Senate committee.

Officials or agencies now can be required to pay as much as $5,000 for a purposeful violation and as much as $1,000 for a “knowing” violation. The Senate legislation would reduce the amount of the lesser penalty to $100 and allow it to be applied when the government did not knowingly break Missouri’s requirements for open meetings and public records. The larger penalty would remain for purposeful violations.

“If you get a traffic ticket, there is a penalty that you pay,” said Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association. “It’s a small penalty compared to what the law is today, but it’s enough to get your attention and cause you to start paying attention to these kinds of laws.”

Maneke said officials promise to uphold state law but that the Sunshine Law is one “they don’t seem very concerned about knowing what the law says, and it’s frankly not that hard to understand.”

The proposed changes to the Sunshine Law prompted concerns from organizations for cities, counties and other local government agencies. They questioned levying penalties against people who can be volunteers and who accidentally violate the Sunshine Law while serving their communities. Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, said the legislation could have a “chilling effect” on the willingness of people to serve on boards and commissions.

The law presumes meetings and documents are open, though there are exceptions that allow — but do not require — government agencies to close them. Exemptions address issues such as communication with attorneys, school expulsions, software codes for electronic data processing and policies for responding to terrorism. Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, is sponsoring the Sunshine Law legislation.

— The Associated Press

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