Daily Archives: December 20, 2012

Update on sunshine law issues elsewhere

Here are a few items from recent news reports on the mainland.

Missouri: “Perhaps 2013 will be year for Sunshine Law reform

“For years, we’ve urged our state legislators to adopt some of the provisions contained in the Illinois Meetings Act, particularly the Illinois Verbatim Record Law that requires governing bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of all closed sessions.”

Arkansas: “Ark. Supreme Court reverses decision by lower judge that found sunshine law unconstitutional,” Associated Press.

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday tossed out a portion of a lower court ruling that declared the state’s Freedom of Information Act unconstitutional but let stand a part of the opinion that lets administrations meet in private with city council members individually.

Sebastian County Circuit Judge James Cox, who ruled last year that the law was too vague for the criminal penalties to be fair after a Fort Smith attorney alleged in a lawsuit that a city administrator was illegally having meetings with individual members of the city council.

The high court’s ruling upheld the criminal penalties and the opinion, written by Chief Justice Jim Hannah, said that the Legislature can change the law, but judges can’t.

Florida: “A SUNSHINE DEBATE: City leaders have differing opinion about possible Sunshine Law issue,” The Destin Log.

Questions about the Sunshine Law were first brought up by Councilman Jim Bagby on Oct. 29. He suggested the city use a blue ribbon panel to form the policy, as opposed to the chamber-led group. At issue for Bagby is whether the group would be subject to Florida’s open meeting statutes and whether an initial planning meeting between City Manager Maryann Ustick, the chamber and the Economic Development Council means the group already exists.

“If they exist or not, I don’t know,” he said. “If they do exist and I find out that our staff is helping them, then I’m going to have a problem.”

Missouri: “Louisiana City Attorney Responds To Attorney General’s Inquiry,” The People’s Tribune, Louisiana, MO.

The Missouri Attorney General’s office recently reopened an inquiry into closed meetings of the Louisiana City Council, particularly the one on Sept. 10 that led to the impeachment of Robbyn Morris.

The initial inquiry was based on numerous complaints of violations to the state’s open meetings law. The state requested copies of all notices of meetings, meeting minutes and other materials for all activity of the Louisiana city council, specifically the notice and minutes of the Sept. 10 closed meeting.

Ohio: “Expert: Lorain’s nondisclosure pledge is illegal,” The Chronicle-Telegram, Elyria, Ohio.

A pledge signed by every City Council members threatening them with prosecution if they disclose what was said in executive sessions is an illegal gag order designed to muzzle public officials, according to an Ohio Sunshine Law expert.

“Even though they signed, it’s not enforceable,” said attorney Tim Smith, a former Akron Beacon Journal managing editor, retired Kent State University journalism professor and Sunshine Law expert. “They are free to talk about what went on in executive sessions if they wish. And there’s no repercussions for it.”

The Notice of Non-Disclosure of Confidential Matters signed by Council members in January said elected officials and public employees are forbidden to disclose information deemed confidential if, “preserving its confidentiality is necessary to the proper conduct of government business.” The form warns that anyone disclosing confidential information is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.

Smith said the reference is to laws designed to keep former public officials from financially benefiting in the private sector from information they received or contacts they made while a public official. Smith said the law has nothing to do with executive sessions, and the way it is being applied by city Law Director Pat Riley violates the First Amendment’s guarantee against prior restraint. Prior restraint is government prohibition of speech in advance of publication.