Rules for Missouri Fourth-Class Cities - Page 12
Parenthetical numbers in the text refer to sections of the current Revised Statutes of Missouri, abbreviated as RSMo.
The Sunshine Law
The Open Meetings and Records Law covers all political subdivisions in Missouri, including cities. Its basic intent is clear: "It's 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). This section also instructs courts to liberally interpret the openness requirement and to strictly limit exceptions. This policy applies to all meetings of the board and all authorized subcommittees of the board, even if a subcommittee doesn't constitute a quorum of the full board. Fines for violations range as high as $5,000 per individual, plus attorney's fees (see below), so care should be taken to do city business in public.
Kinds of meetings
There are only two kinds of meetings possible: open or closed. There are few authorized reasons for a city to conduct a closed meeting. Always review the details of Ch. 610, sec. 021 before deciding to close a meeting for any reason. Meetings may be, but do not have to be, closed for the following reasons:
- Legal actions, but only if the city is suing or being sued;
- Real estate transactions where public knowledge may affect the price;
- 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, a closed meeting is not possible;
- When specifications are being prepared for a bid call, lasting until the call is publicly announced;
- For sealed bids received until the bid opening;
- If city employees are organized and collectively bargain, preparations for contract negotiations;
- Pre- and post-audit conferences.
Closing a meeting
It's necessary to vote during an open meeting to hold a closed meeting for one of the specific authorized purposes. Notice must be given 24 hours in advance of the closed meeting and cite the specific section authorizing the closing by number. Legal actions is 610.021 , real estate is 610.021 , and personnel is 610.021 . Meetings to open bids may be closed (610.021 ) until a contract is awarded or all bids are rejected. Bid specification preparation is 610.021 . Preparation for contract negotiations is 610.021 . Audits is 610.021 .
Because of the possibility of terrorist threat, additional purposes for closed meetings were added: 610.021  for plans for law enforcement and public safety response to a suspected terrorist act and 610.021  for security systems for publicly owned or leased real property. Subsections 18 and 19 expire at the end of 2008. Protection of computer system designs is 610.021  and 610.021  protects credit card numbers and other personal information from public disclosure.
For all meetings, except in extreme emergency, you must give public notice 24 hours in advance. This doesn't need to be complicated. Establish an accessible place to post the notices. The law says, "in a manner reasonably calculated to advise the public." 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 issues that may arise. The clerk (or whoever posts the notice) should write on a corner "Posted time, a.m. p.m., date" in case challenge should be made. Notice forms are in the back of this manual.
The public is allowed to attend meetings. They are not allowed to participate unless the board permits it. Whether or not to allow participation should be discussed before there is a roomful of angry citizens all wanting to make complaints. If the board chooses to allow the public to speak at meetings, it should set a time limit for comments in advance. Public, remember, is not restricted to citizens of the city. If a reporter from your local newspaper or the New York Times wants to attend a 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). Record votes 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 voting takes place. 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.
Records: care and custody
Every public governmental body must formally designate someone as custodian of records. For cities, this should probably be the clerk, as Chapter V. stated. The name and contact information for this person must be publicly posted (610.023).
All records of the city, with very few exceptions, are open to the public. The deadline to respond to requests for records is three business days. Sealed bids may be kept closed until the opening date. Personnel records beyond name, position, salary and length of service can and should be kept closed such as evaluations, reprimands or sick days used (610.021).
Charges for record copies
The city may recover the actual cost of making copies of records for people. There is a limit of 10 cents per page on photocopying of letter and legal size pages. The city may also recover the cost of staff time spent duplicating records, up to the average rate of pay for clerical staff. Research time may be charged at full cost. The city should be prepared to document these charges. The clerk can require payment before producing the records (610.026).
Violations and penalties
Any person can challenge a public governmental body with violating this law. Once the challenger demonstrates to a court that the body is covered, it becomes the task of the public governmental body to prove it did not violate the law's requirements. If the board is found to have knowingly held an improper closed meeting, each member who voted to close and who participated in the meeting is subject to a fine of up to $1,000, plus court costs and attorney fees for the challenger. If the closed meeting was purposely held, the penalty is $5,000 per participant, plus court costs and attorney fees. In addition, the court usually nullifies any decisions made at the improperly closed meeting, leaving the board to conduct the meeting again.
A word of advice
It's the underlying presumption of this law that the public has a right to watch public business being transacted. This is hardly revolutionary. Citizens have a right to be concerned since decisions will impact them and spend public funds. Whenever possible, stress openness. Skeptical Missourians, when convinced no one is trying to hide anything from them, generally lose interest quickly. Operating in secret may make the public feel that you're hiding something.