The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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March 21, 2014

Sunshine Law bill seeks to open some personnel information

In an effort to refine Missouri’s open records and open meetings laws, a bill under consideration in the state Senate would open certain government personnel information to the public before major hiring decisions are made.

Under the current law, public bodies are allowed to close meetings for discussion of “individually identifiable personnel records.” The proposed legislation would no longer allow public bodies to apply that exemption to the final five applicants for top administrative positions. Their identities and qualifications would have to be made available to the public at least five days before any final hiring decision.

Jean Maneke, legal counsel for the Missouri Press Association, of which The Joplin Globe is a member, said this language has resurfaced in various iterations of proposed Sunshine Law legislation for years.

“The idea behind this is when you don’t identify candidates to the public, then there’s no opportunity for the public to provide input into this process, and certainly there are times when the public knows things about candidates that the selection committee may not know,” she said. “The more information any selection committee has, the better.”

Some local boards already follow a procedure similar to this. In its recent search for a president, Crowder College in Neosho released the names and qualifications of its top three candidates to the public before holding on-campus open forums with each of them earlier this year. After taking feedback from those who attended the forums, the college board of trustees then met in closed session to hire Jennifer Methvin, formerly the vice chancellor for academics at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope.

Missouri Southern State University is also searching for a president. Its 15-member search committee, which last week released its first advertisements for the position, has been tasked with providing information on its top three to five candidates to the Board of Governors. It wasn’t immediately clear how the board plans to proceed after that point.

“I know that the qualifications of the top candidates were going to be made available to the board, and we were going to have all the detailed background information so we can look at all of that data,” said Lynn Ewing, who is serving as board chairman until June. “I don’t remember what the plan was in releasing that information to the public.”

Joy Dworkin, president of the faculty senate, said she thinks the faculty in general would support this piece of the legislation.

“I think it has been our expectation that that’s the practice at Missouri Southern, that we should know who the finalists are,” she said. “For transparency’s sake, we want to know who is up for certain positions.”

But such a law could also raise “sensitive issues” of applicants’ privacy, Dworkin said. She said she wouldn’t want disclosure of information to “dissuade the best candidates from coming forward” by potentially jeopardizing their current job situations.

Maneke acknowledged that some boards seek to keep candidate information closed to protect the privacy of those who apply. The proposed law would require disclosure only of the final five candidates, not of all applicants.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. He could not be reached for comment through his Jefferson City office this week because the General Assembly is on spring break.

Schaefer’s legislation would also reduce the penalty amount for breaking the Sunshine Law and allow the penalty to be applied even when government boards don’t knowingly break the law.

The Missouri Sunshine Law currently requires government boards to provide notice 24 hours before a meeting. Officials must reference a specific exemption to close meetings to the public.

To provide records requested under the law, agencies can charge up to 10 cents per page, the average hourly wage of clerical staff for making copies and the actual cost of research time. Officials must respond to a request within three days, though it does not mean documents have to be provided that quickly.

The law presumes meetings and documents are open, though there are exceptions that allow — but do not require — government agencies to close them. Exemptions address issues such as communication with agencies’ attorneys, school expulsions, software codes for electronic data processing and operational policies for responding to terrorism.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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