Amendment terrorizes those who would challenge public utilities

Thursday, February 14, 2002

By the time this editorial is printed, the state Senate may have already voted on the latest attempt to shroud government goings-on in the form of an amendment slipped onto Senate Bill 712 by Sen. Roseann Bentley (R-Springfield).

Bentley's amendment opens the door for boards of municipal utilities to, at the very least, keep any information "considered to be proprietary, highly confidential, critical to security of the utility, or a public record that would compromise the security of a utility system" to itself for up to 30 days after receiving a public records request or file a motion in the appropriate circuit court to block the records' release.

Also, the court would be asked to decide if release of the information would jeopardize "the competitive position or security of the utility." Does this include information regarding rates when another utility provides service in a different part of the county? Does this include how much to charge for new services such as wireless Internet or what money a utility will set aside for startup costs? We'd rather not have to find out the hard way.

Even if you, or the media, is correct in arguing that a record should be open for public review this means the revelation could still be put off a month.

But the true scare tactics come in some of the other wording contained in the bill. If the court rules against the plaintiff seeking to open the records, the court can also make the plaintiff responsible not only for his or her own legal costs but the costs incurred by the utility as well. It's expensive enough to hire legal representation in the first place. How many citizens are likely to challenge a governmental body if there's even the chance their legal bill could double - or worse - if they lose?

Even if a utility were to lose a legal challenge, under this bill the worst thing that could possibly happen is it would have to turn over the information and pay a $500 fine.

In dealing with the Marshall Municipal Utilities and Board of Public Works, the Democrat-News has enjoyed an excellent relationship. We're not saying MMU had any part in the measure being considered (That, reports indicate, is the doing of Springfield's City Utilities.) But we still cannot allow such a broad loophole in the state's open meetings/open records law.

SB 712 is being touted as an "anti-terrorism" bill. That may have been the original intention, but Bentley's amendment will likely terrorize many who might dare to challenge the powers that be.

We hope Missouri's utilities can operate in the light of public and media scrutiny rather than seeking exemptions to the Sunshine Law.