State officials skip around Sunshine Law

Friday, June 28, 2002

Struggles to comply with Missouri's Sunshine Law, which aims to ensure the right of residents to have access to open meeting and open records, can get interesting.

At issue is a meeting of the Tobacco Settlement Financing Authority, whose three voting members are Gov. Bob Holden, Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell and Attorney General Jay Nixon. House Speaker Jim Kreider of Nixa is an ex-officio member, as is Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder of Cape Girardeau.

The new authority exists to oversee the sale of bonds against payments the state expects to receive over 25 years from Big Tobacco. Officials hope to use $50 million to help shore up Missouri's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

With Holden out of the state, Maxwell and Nixon made a decision on the morning of June 11 to hold a meeting that same morning without the 24-hour notice to the public and the news media required under the Sunshine Law.

The rationale stated by both Maxwell and Nixon was that a portion of the law allows meeting with less notice if there is "good cause."

The House speaker was represented by a staff member. Kinder received a notifying call shortly after 9 a.m. as he was heading for Lambert Airport to catch a flight to Kansas City. The actual meeting conference call came through as Kinder was boarding the flight, and he couldn't remain on the call for more than 10 minutes because of regulations requiring airline passengers to turn off their cell phones while a plane is preparing for departure.

Ironies abound.

When he was a senator, Maxwell championed measures strengthening the Sunshine Law, ridiculing other lawmakers who opposed the $25,000 penalties for violations - later reduced - that were contained in his bill.

Nixon, as the state's chief legal officer, routinely goes around prosecuting or threatening prosecutions against violators of the Sunshine Law.

Both have long postured to the media and preened for the public on this issue.

Sounds like it's sauce for the gander on this one.