Rules for Missouri Townships
The Sunshine Law, also known as the Open Meetings and Records Law, covers all political subdivisions in Missouri, including townships. Its basic intent is clear in the following section: "It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law "(610.011). The section goes on to instruct courts to interpret liberally the openness requirement and to strictly limit exceptions. With fines for violations ranging as high as $5,000 per individual plus attorney's fees (see below), care should be taken to do township business in public.
Open and closed meetings
There are only two kinds of meetings possible: open or closed. A long listing of authorizations for specific closings contains only four exceptions that might apply to townships. In the following instances, meetings may be, but do not have to be, closed:
- During legal actions, but only if the township is suing or being sued (610.021)
- During real estate transactions where public knowledge would tend to affect the price (610.02)
- When hiring, firing, promoting or disciplining of particular employees where personal information about the employee is either discussed or recorded (unless a specific person is discussed, no closing is possible) (610.021)
- When preparing specifications for a bid call, which lasts until the call is publicly announced, and for sealed bids received until the bid opening (610.021[11-12]).
To hold a closed meeting, it is necessary to vote in an open meeting to close for one of the specific authorized purposes. Notice must be given 24 hours before holding the closed meeting, with the citation given of the specific section (noted above) authorizing the closing.
Meetings to open bids may be closed until either a contract is awarded or all bids are rejected.
All meetings, except in extreme emergency, e.g. a bridge washed out — must give 24 hours prior notice to the public. This need not be complicated. An accessible location needs to be established for posting of notices. The law says, "in a manner reasonably calculated to advise the public" (610.020). The notice must contain a tentative agenda for the meeting. Be sure it always includes "and such other matters as may come before the board" to cover unanticipated agenda items. The clerk, or whoever posts the notice, should write the date and time on a corner, as in "Posted 4:00 p.m., 6/7/99," in case a challenge should be made. (See sample PDF forms for Notice of meeting and Notice of closed meeting.)
The public is allowed to attend meetings. They are not allowed to participate unless the board chooses to permit this. Whether or not to do so should be discussed and agreed upon before there is a roomful of angry citizens all wanting to make a complaint. If public attendees are permitted to speak at meetings, time limits on comments should be set in advance. The public is not restricted to township citizens. If a reporter from The New York Times wants to attend a township board meeting, he or she may do so.
Minutes and votes
Minutes of open meetings "shall be taken and retained" and must include the date, time, place, members present and a record of votes (610.020). The record of votes should be by member name. When the clerk prepares the agenda, each item should include board members' names at the end, such as "Jones , Smith , Brown ." Then either "yea" or "nay" can be jotted in the blank after the vote. The law states: "When a roll call vote is taken, the minutes shall attribute each ‘yea' and ‘nay' vote or abstinence if not voting to the name of the individual member of the public governmental body." The safest practice is to follow this procedure for every vote.
Every public governmental body must formally designate someone as custodian of records. For townships, this should be the clerk, as stated in Section IV. Clerk Powers and Duties. The clerk's name and contact information must be publicly posted (610.023). (See sample PDF resolution.)
All records of the township, with very few exceptions, are open to the public. Requests for records have deadlines for responding. Exceptions include sealed bids that may be kept closed until the opening date. Also, personnel records beyond name, position, salary and length of service can and should be kept closed, including evaluations, reprimands and sick days used (610.021).
Charges to copy records
The township may recover the actual cost of making copies of records for people (with a 10 cents per-page limit on photocopying). The township should be prepared to document this charge. The clerk can require payment before producing the records (610.026).
Violations and penalties
Any person can challenge in court a public governmental body for having violated the state's open meetings and records laws. Once the challenger demonstrates to a court that the law applies to a public body, it becomes the task of the body to prove it did not violate the requirements.
If the Board is found to have improperly closed a meeting, each member who voted to close and who participated in the meeting is subject to a fine of up to $1,000 plus attorney fees for the challenger. (If the violation is found to be purposeful, the fine increases up to $5,000.) In addition, the court usually nullifies any decisions made at the improperly closed meeting, which leaves the board with having to do the whole thing over again. If a board member objects to closing the meeting, that objection shall be included in the minutes. If that member also votes against closing the meeting, the member has an "absolute defense" against the penalties noted (610.022.6).
The public has the right
It is the underlying presumption of this law that the public has the right to watch public business being transacted. This is hardly revolutionary. Since decisions will impact the public and will influence public expenditures, citizens have a right to be concerned. Whenever possible, make every effort to stress openness. Skeptical Missourians, when convinced no one is trying to hide anything from them, generally lose interest quickly. Operating in secret makes them think you are hiding something.