The Reporter covers Miller, Morgan and Camden County in Central Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks and is published once per week on Wednesdays.
Published September 4, 2019
Sunshine Law? What is that?
CAMDEN COUNTY – One area of the audit that went into detail was the county’s handling of the Sunshine Law.
In March of 2017 the County Commissioners voted to remove the taking of minutes and sunshine law requests from the county clerk’s office. Sunshine law requests were put in the hands of a law firm and minutes were taken by someone other than an employee of the County Clerk’s office.
State law is clear on the duties of the County Clerk.
“51.120. Every clerk of a county commission shall keep an accurate record of the orders, rules, and proceedings of the county commission, and shall make a complete alphabetical index thereto; issue and attest all process, when required by law, and affix the seal of his office thereto…”
It has not been stated if this state law requires the county clerk to take the minutes of the commissioners meetings or just to “keep” them on file and someone else can take the minutes.
It should be noted that County Clerk Rowland Todd was in charge of taking the minutes up until March of the audited year (2017). After the commissioner’s took it away from his office, they were responsible for following the state’s Sunshine Law.
In the audit by Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a number of problems were listed regarding the following of the Sunshine Law.
“The county’s procedures for complying with the Sunshine Law and maintaining minutes of meetings need improvement.”
“The County Clerk does not maintain a log of public record requests to ensure all requests are handled in compliance with state law. While the County Clerk indicated there were requests for records, neither the County Clerk nor the contracted legal counsel for responding to Sunshine Law requests maintain a log or other record of public records requests to ensure all requests are handled in compliance with the Sunshine Law.
“Section 610.023, RSMo, provides each request for access to public records shall be acted upon as soon as possible, but in no event later than the end of the third business day following the date the request is received.”
Public access policy
“The county’s written policy regarding public access to county records is not adequate. The policy, effective March 28, 2017, does not identify a person to contact, provide an address to mail such requests, or establish fees that may be assessed for providing copies of public records. A written policy regarding public access to county records should establish guidelines for the county to make records available to the public.
“Section 610.023, RSMo, lists requirements for making records available to the public. Section 610.026, RSMo, allows the county to charge fees for providing access to and/or copies of public records and provides requirements related to fees. Section 610.028, RSMo, requires a written policy regarding release of information under the Sunshine Law.”
Note that the policy mentioned above (March 28, 2017) occurred when the commissioners removed the duties from the county clerk.
“The County Commission does not ensure minutes of all County Commission meetings are prepared, approved timely, and posted to the county’s website. Minutes were not available for 12 of 113 possible open meetings and 4 of the 14 closed meetings held during the year ended December 31, 2017. For 5 of the 12 open meetings with no minutes, the County Commission indicated no meetings were held. Our review of the related agendas and subsequent meeting minutes gave the appearance that meetings occurred. The agendas stated ‘No Official Business Requiring Voting Action’ and did not clearly indicate that no meetings took place. Subsequent meeting minutes showed the County Commission took action regarding minutes for 2 of the 5 meetings, with the minutes approved for one meeting and the approval tabled for the other meeting.
“In addition, for the majority of the available minutes, the preparer and the County Commission had not signed them and minutes for several open meetings were not approved timely. For example, minutes of the June 20, 2017, meeting were not approved until August 15, 2017. In addition, minutes for 25 open meetings were not posted to the county’s website, which is the county’s procedure.”
“The County Commissioners voted to change the responsibility for preparing meeting minutes from the County Clerk to the HR Benefits Coordinator on March 23, 2017. The HR Benefits Coordinator does not always prepare meeting minutes timely and present them to the County Commission for review and approval. Once the minutes have been approved, the HR Benefits Coordinator submits them to the County Clerk’s office to file and the Information Technology department to post online.
“Section 610.020.7, RSMo, requires minutes of open and closed meetings be maintained as a record of business conducted and to provide an official record of actions and decisions. The meeting minutes should be signed by the preparer and subsequently approved by the County Commission to provide an independent attestation that the minutes are a correct record of the matters discussed and actions taken during the meetings. Section 610.023.2, RSMo, requires the county make records available to the public for inspection and copying. Without timely County Commission approval of meeting minutes, the public records of open County Commission meetings cannot be made available to the public within a reasonable time period.”
The county was also accused of hiding portions of the minutes without adequate reason.
“Some redactions made to documents do not appear appropriate. The County Commission redacted information on legal bills prior to sending them to the Accounts Payable department for payment and the Custodian of Records to maintain as public records. We obtained original legal bills (unredacted) and compared them to the redacted copies. Based on our review, some of the information redacted was not confidential. Also, internal redactions of information that is not confidential from invoices submitted to the Accounts Payable department lessens the ability to perform adequate reviews and ensure the validity and appropriateness of billings.
“Legal bills generally do not constitute privileged communications or a basis to close records under the Sunshine Law. Redacting non-confidential information from legal bills violates Section 610.023.2, RSMo, requiring county records to be made available for inspection and copying.”
(On March 22, 2017, The Reporter made an official Sunshine law request to the county, in writing, asking for several items. One of the items requested was the contract or agreement of services between the Camden County Commission and Husch Blackwell LLP (Services engaged on February 28, 2017 according to Husch Blackwell LLP).
The Sunshine law requires that a request be fulfilled within a specific period of time and if denied, then a reason has to be given for that denial.
That contract between the commissioners and HB has, to this date, never been turned over to The Reporter and no reason has ever been given for denying us that public information.
That would appear to The Reporter to be a direct violation of the Sunshine Law by the county commissioners.
The State Auditor gave four recommendations to the county commissioners in regards to the Sunshine Law (The county commissioner’s responses are in italics).
1. Maintain a public request log to help ensure compliance with state law.
2. Update the written public access policy regarding procedures to obtain access to, or copies of, public records.
“(1 & 2) The County Commission will comply with the state statute in regards to the Sunshine Law. The county has a Sunshine Law attorney who responds to requests. An amended Sunshine Law policy will be developed that complies with state statute. The County Clerk has stated that his office will retain a log of requests and documentation provided to the requestor.”
3. Ensure meeting minutes are prepared, approved timely, and maintained for all open and closed session meetings. Also ensure meeting minutes are signed by the preparer and the County Commission.
“The County Commission will ensure meeting minutes are prepared, approved timely, and maintained for all open and closed session meetings. We will have all minutes signed by the preparer and the County Commission.”
4. Ensure redactions to county documents are appropriate and in compliance with the Sunshine Law.
“The County Commission will ensure that redactions to county documents are appropriate and are in compliance with the Sunshine Law.”
The County Clerk’s office had a response to the auditor relating to this subject.
“Although a ‘log’ was not maintained prior to the audit, each written request was ‘noted’ with the date received, date fulfilled, fee charged, and a copy of what was provided was attached (unless it was too large). At the recommendation of the auditors, a ‘log’ has now been created and is being used to record all pertinent Sunshine Law request information.”
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