An October 2016 advisory report issued by the Missouri State Auditor ("Auditor") identified common Sunshine Law violations in Missouri government. The findings were compiled based on audits issued over a one-year period. The most frequent oversights by governmental bodies included not preparing meeting minutes, a lack of documentation of the reason for closing a meeting to the public, and closing a meeting for reasons not allowed under the law. This alert summarizes the Auditor's report and how clients can ensure compliance with the Sunshine Law.
Minutes of Open Meetings
The Sunshine Law, ch. 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, requires that whenever a public governmental body holds an open meeting, that entity must take and retain meeting minutes. Minutes should be detailed and include the date, time, place, members present, members absent, and a record of votes taken. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.020(7)). All meeting minutes should be reviewed and approved in a timely manner. The Auditor's report found that many decisions made during open meetings were not properly documented.
Closed Meetings and Minutes of Closed Meetings
The Sunshine Law permits, but in most cases does not require, governmental bodies to close meetings for discussion of topics such as litigation matters, the purchase or sale of real estate where disclosure could affect the transaction, employment discussions, and sealed bids. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.021). Before any meeting, or portion thereof, may be closed, both the question of holding the closed meeting and the reason for the closed meeting shall be voted on, and the vote must be by roll call and identified in the publicly-available minutes. (Mo.Rev.Stat §610.015). The Auditor's report revealed that votes to close a portion of a meeting often were not adequately documented within the minutes.
Further, the topics discussed in such closed meetings must be limited to those where closure is authorized. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.022). The Auditor's report showed that closed sessions often included topics that were not permitted under state law.
Government bodies are required to take and retain minutes of closed meetings, and if any vote is taken, must identify how each member voted. (Mo.Rev.Stat. § 610.020(6)). The Auditor's report found instances where closed-meeting minutes did not include sufficient detail of the discussions held, decisions made, or votes taken.
The Sunshine Law requires governmental bodies to maintain adequate policies and procedures for public access to records and to publicly disclose a records custodian to whom requests for public records can be made. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.023.1). Such policies should include establishing and maintaining a recorded log of public requests. Governmental bodies are encouraged to have written protocols for providing copies of records to the public.
The law further requires that each request for access to public records be acted upon as soon as possible, but no later than the end of the third business day following the date that the request was received. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.023.3). The report found that some governmental bodies failed to timely respond to public requests.
Public entities must give notice of the time, date, and place of each meeting; whether intended to be open or closed; and a tentative agenda. (Mo.Rev.Stat. §610.020). Such notice must be given at least 24 hours in advance. The audit report found inadequate compliance by entities for not preparing a tentative agenda or not disclosing sufficient information on the upcoming meeting.
How Clients Can Ensure that They Are Compliant
Clients are encouraged to frequently review Sunshine Law requirements to ensure compliance. Please contact your Lewis Rice team if you have questions or wish to further discuss these matters.