A number of allegations related to the Missouri Sunshine Law (which regulates the openness of government records) have been made against the Pevely Board of Aldermen in the past year. One of these allegations was recently closed with no action taken by the state attorney general:
I think this allegation (made by Alderman Ed Walters), along with a subsequent one I will discuss, were made with a too-broad interpretation of the Sunshine Law. The business license fee allegation was based on a statement by alderman Dave Young that he knew how others would vote on an issue. It was assumed that an illegal meeting had occurred. As the AG web site explains:
Under the Sunshine Law, a meeting takes place when a majority or quorum of a public governmental body gathers to discuss or vote on public business (§ 610.010(5), RSMo, and Colombo v. Buford, 935 S.W.2d 690 (Mo. App. W.D. 1996)). Therefore, if less than a quorum of the public body meets to discuss public business, it is not a “meeting” as defined under the Sunshine Law.
So individual board members are free to meet and discuss issues, as long as there is no quorum. I think governing would be rather unwieldy if the only time representatives talked to each other was at meetings. I also think one could probably have guessed how each board member would vote on this without even talking to them. Now, the AG web site does say “However, the Sunshine Law will apply to meetings of groups with less than a quorum when the entity is deliberately attempting to evade the Sunshine Law,” but I don’t really see that here.
In the next incident, the board called a special meeting for April 9. Such a meeting requires 24 hours advance notice, which apparently was given, if just barely. Four members of the board turned in letters to the city clerk requesting a meeting. As I understand it, alderman Dave Bewig placed a letter in the mailboxes of the other three aldermen and informed them of such, and they came in to sign and submit their letters.
Pevely city code says “Special meetings may be called by the Mayor or by any four (4) members of the Board by written request filed with the City Clerk.” That sounds like what happened here. As above, there is no Sunshine violation if one alderman calls the others and suggests a special meeting. You can’t really say they were circumventing the Sunshine Law, since all they were trying to do was have a meeting.
Incoming mayor Stephanie Haas claimed that the meeting was called illegally, because it was not “conducted with” the city clerk, city administrator, or the mayor. She seems to suggest that it is illegitimate for an alderman to distribute the meeting requests to be signed, and states that a municipal attorney she consulted concurs with this assessment. She also said that she will send the submitted meeting request forms to the attorney general. After her statement that the meeting was illegal, the board voted to adjourn. Video here.
As I showed above, though, I see no variance between the process spelled out in city code for calling a special meeting and what happened in this instance. I believe the meeting was properly called.
The other Sunshine incident occurred last April, when after a meeting, board members stopped in the parking lot to discuss the need to close a portion of the next meeting. They then filed the appropriate paperwork. This encounter, which constituted a quorum of the board and was captured on security camera. The private gathering of a majority of the board does violate the Sunshine Law. According to Pevely Press, the AG has not made a determination on this complaint (Which was made by Haas). Note that “penalties are assessed [by a court] only if the violation is found to be knowing or purposeful,” according to the AG web site.