This afternoon, at 6:00, council has scheduled a special session, for the purpose of holding a closed meeting. At 7:00, council will meet for regular session, during which the new council will be sworn in. This unseemly spectacle, where a lame duck majority will take one last swing at some issue which our city believes merits such secrecy, is reminiscent of the stunt which Sam Page pulled in county council, where a lame duck member on an expired term cast the deciding vote to elect a Page ally as council chair. While our charter is vague as to the precise moment at which an outgoing member loses their authority, in the best case, councilor Griffin will be making decisions on behalf of the city in the final hour of a 26,280 term. It would have been better to call the closed session from the regular meeting, to allow the newly elected council to address the issue.
More important, however, is the long term and unfortunate trend of council to call an excessive number of closed sessions. While we understand that there are a few issues, such as sexual harassment, which must be dealt with in closed session, the great majority of business should be conducted in public. A great portion of the meaty business of running the city is taking place behind closed doors, while the public meetings often deal with matters that are trivial, or have already been settled between the members. As the attorney general says in their booklet on the sunshine law, “Meetings and records of public governmental bodies may (though not ‘shall’) be closed for the reasons listed in Section 610.021, RSMo.” Council has historically closed its meetings in every instance where it was permissible. Instead, business should only be conducted in closed meetings when the public discussion of the matter is either expressly prohibited by law, or significantly compromises a substantial interest of the city.
It is also worth noting that while state law prohibits the recording of a closed meeting without permission, it does not impose a gag rule on those who attend the meeting. We asked the attorney general’s office for any statutory prohibition on a member speaking publicly about a closed session, and this was their response:
Translated into plain English, that means there’s no law prohibiting a council member from publicly discussing what was done in closed session. There are laws against disclosing particular information – for example, I’m told that it’s unlawful to disclose private personnel information. But in general, discussing closed session is not prohibited by state law.
Of course, the city would likely prefer that members not go rogue in speaking out about closed session. One way to avoid that would be to implement an improved policy regarding disclosure. First, unless there is compelling reason otherwise, the agenda item and vote for closed session should include the specific purpose for closing it, not just a general statutory reference. Then, there must be a process for disclosure following the meeting. The final order of business in each closed session should be that the council, with the guidance of the city attorney, should determine what items will not be disclosed to the public, with a supermajority vote required to prohibit disclosure. A summary of any business not excluded from disclosure should be issued with the minutes of the meeting from which the closed session arose, and unless minutes have already been released, should be announced in the first open meeting following the closed session.
It is also important that council members have accurate guidance on what can be discussed. If our city attorney is unable to guide the counsel according to the requirements of the law, rather than the preference of some for maximum secrecy, he must educate himself in the details of the sunshine law or be replaced. The past practice of holding closed sessions whenever permissible, and disclosing absolutely nothing, must end today. Council has an opportunity to bring a new level of transparency to city government, and should do so at the earliest opportunity.