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Friday, May 6, 2016

Covering Government Meetings Isn't Easy

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thayer Mayor Buddy Rogers recenty asked City Clerk Donna Martin to request that The South Missourian News make two corrections to a story we did about Aug. 2 and Aug. 21 Thayer City Council meetings.

No problem. If we make mistakes in reporting a story, we want to correct the record. In this case, however, there is more to it than a simple correction.

Aug. 2 Special Meeting

Our story about an Aug. 2 special meeting reported that the council met in closed session to discuss a personnel matter. Minutes from the meeting indicate that, when the council went into public session, City Clerk Donna Martin was suspended for 10 days for a violation that related to litigation involving city government.

In editing the story, I added that the city council violated Missouri's Sunshine Law, established to make sure that citizens have access to government meetings and records, because it did not give the newspaper advance notice of the meeting.

Martin informed me that the council did not violate the Sunshine Law, in that, at least 24 hours before the special meeting, it posted notice of the meeting on the door of the clerk's office, which is all that is required to give notice of a meeting.

In talking with Martin, I pointed out that the past two reporters who covered Thayer news had requested to be informed of all council meetings, but the requests had been ignored and the newspaper often learned of special meetings after they were held.

Martin offered to send us meeting notices and minutes if I sent her a reminder in writing.

In reading Sunshine Law meeting notice requirements, I found, believe it or not, that posting a notice of a meeting on a door is considered sufficient notice to the public. However, the law goes on say, "Reasonable notice shall include making available copies of the notice to any representative of the news media who requests notice of meetings..."

I thought Martin was just being nice when she offered to finally give us notice of meetings. In truth, it is a requirement of the law.

I have sent a formal request that The South Missourian News be given notice of future council meetings. We will expect compliance under the Sunshine Law.

Aug. 21 Regular Meeting

The other correction Mayor Rogers requested concerned the Aug. 21 regular council meeting.

Our story described the business conducted by the council. Regarding an agenda item, the story said, "In closed session, Thayer City Council discussed a list of equipment and supplies to be purchased for the Thayer Police Department, which were approved."

The Mayor said that paragraph was not true, in that the patrol car purchase was not approved in closed session.

Clerk Martin added the patrol car purchase and other police expenditures were not even discussed in the closed session. I agreed they should not have been, since closed sessions in Missouri are mostly limited to consideration of personnel matters, litigation and real estate purchases.

But the way the meeting progressed raises the appearance that the Mayor did want to discuss the police purchases in private.

South Missourian News reporter Kim Bray, who was at the meeting, noted the agenda was followed to the letter as the council went through items one through 18. The Mayor then called agenda items 20, 21 and 22. Item 19, which was skipped, was the police department expenditues. Mayor Rogers moved the council into closed session before they were discussed.

Upon returning to open session, the council finally dealt with agenda item 19, making motions to buy a new patrol car and sell an old patrol car, and approved a number of other police department expenditures.

The council then immediately adjourned.

According to Martin, the Mayor "forgot" the police department business was still on the agenda before he went into a closed session. Martin said she was in the closed meeting, and she promises the police department expenditures were not discussed.

I guess we will have to take her word for it, but the way the matter was handled makes it appear the Mayor and the Council may have wanted to discuss the police business in private before taking the public action.

The part of our coverage the Mayor questioned was the sentence explaining the council went into closed session and discussed police expenditures, "which were approved." It is correct the council cannot approve items in closed session. For those who do not know that, the sentence should have ended, "which were approved when the council went back into open session."

Video Recording Meetings

If the newspaper or someone else ever decides to video record a Thayer City Council meeting, turning on a camera should not be a big issue, like it has been at the Fulton County Quorum Court.

Unlike Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the Missouri Sunshine Law is crystal clear on video taping of meetings: "A public body shall allow for the recording by audiotape, videotape, or other electronic means of any open meeting."

Arkansas' FOIA does not specifically say video recording is allowed along with audiotaping and photographs -- but four Attorney General opinions have concluded videotaping should be allowed at public meetings without question. It is time for the legislature to make a minor change to its FOIA law to remove any doubt about the public's right to video record meetings in Arkansas.

Thankfully, Fulton County's Quorum Court, which banned video taping more than a year ago, has finally listened to reason and voted to allow anyone to video record its meetings, as long as the process is not disruptive. Citizens respectfully told the court "it was a laughing stock" throughout the state for being the only govement body in the state afraid of video cameras. When Justice of the Peace Cris Newberry asked for a reason that would justify banning video recording, since it is done all over the state without problems, he got no answer. Fellow J-Ps later approved his motion that video recording be allowed, answering a citizen's plea that they "step forward into this century," and recognize that video recording is here to stay.