But the law also states that rules regarding public records “shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed” in favor of open government. That was the foundation of a ruling by Jasper County Circuit Court Judge David B. Mouton that the Globe was entitled to the portions of the report the city withheld. (After considering an appeal, the city council decided to accept Mouton’s ruling.)
“Judge Mouton correctly found that neither of the narrowly construed exceptions applied to trump Missouri’s liberal openness requirement,” William Peterson, one of the attorneys who represented the Globe in court, wrote in an email to CJR. “The report was generated as a result of an investigation into elected officials and did not concern human resource issues of any public employee.”
Separate from the court proceedings, the state’s Attorney General’s Office is reviewing three complaints from citizens regarding the council’s actions under the Sunshine Law, according to spokeswoman Nanci Gonder. The fine for a “knowing” violation is up to $1,000, while a “purposeful” violation carries a $5,000 penalty. “Educating public bodies on their responsibilities under the Sunshine Law is an effective approach and, in some instances, may be helpful in demonstrating a knowing violation if complaints persist,” Gonder added.
No new case law established
Judging by Tuesday’s election results, the dismissal of Rohr may have been a bigger deal to voters than any suspected misconduct by council members—and voters may have been supportive of the city manager, or at least opposed to the effort to dismiss him, despite the allegations against him.
Five of the city’s nine council members were up for reelection. Three who had backed Rohr on both occasions—including Woolston—were reelected. Two who twice voted to have the manager removed were defeated.
And what about the impact for open government and records-access in Joplin, and elsewhere in Missouri?
For his part, Head, the city attorney, said he believes the ruling “will certainly negatively impact the ability of governmental entities in Jasper County to properly maintain confidentiality of personnel records.”
“The court decision and the resulting decision of the City Council does great harm to the ability of a local governmental entity to get complete and honest testimony in future investigations,” he said. “Our office and the City is committed to following the Missouri Sunshine law precisely… We must, in the future insure that we not only provide documents when required but that we also protect confidential records when allowed by law even when it is politically incorrect.”
Stark, the Globe’s editor, said the paper doesn’t take records disputes to court lightly. “It’s expensive, it generates bills for the taxpayer,” she said. “But when you get to a point where you cannot get any further, that’s when you have to go to court.”
In a recent commentary in the Globe, she called on Missouri to develop the sort of public council that other states have to help mediate records conflicts before they reach the litigation stage—and reduce costs for both local governments and news outlets. (Support from the Globe’s parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., of Montgomery, AL, allowed the paper to pursue the records dispute, Stark said. The final bill for the lawsuit hasn’t been released.)
As for the legal implications, Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association who was not involved in the litigation process, said was “excited for the Globe,” and “happy they pursued it because it’s not cheap to pursue something that is a matter of principle.”
However, Maneke said, the impact of the court ruling will be limited, since decisions at the circuit court do not become binding case law. “A Circuit Court decision only has some value in that circuit,” she said. “It has no [authority] over the appellate court, and it can’t guarantee you that it would persuade any other Circuit Court judge.”
While the ruling may not be legally binding outside of Jasper County, Peterson, the Globe’s attorney, said the decision may still have ramifications for local governments or the news organizations that cover them.
“It is important because it will have persuasive force in the future because courts are responsive to well-reasoned and cogent arguments in judicial decisions,” he said. “This precedent will be one that can be cited by media throughout Missouri and elsewhere for the principle that openness should be the norm.”