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St. Charles County Council meeting shut to public over coronavirus, raising Sunshine Law concerns

  

When St. Charles County Council called a meeting Friday morning to consider several emergency bills pertaining to the coronavirus pandemic, members of the public were not permitted to attend. 

The meeting was instead live-streamed, and residents were encouraged to submit comments by email to be included in the official record. But what was meant as a way to keep the public safe from the spread of COVID-19 ultimately caused a katzenjammer over the state’s transparency laws. 

State Rep. Tony Lovasco, a Republican from O’Fallon, attempted to attend the meeting at 8:30 a.m. Friday but was prohibited from fully entering the room. In a video posted to social media, a man told Lovasco and those with him that if they did not leave on their own, police would be called. 

Lovasco said they waited outside the room and watched the live stream on their phones. 

“We’ve got open transparency laws for a reason, and I think people have an absolute right to participate in meetings,” Lovasco told The Missouri Times. 

“I absolutely find it concerning if this is becoming a trend. I’m seeing more and more of local governments closing to the public,” he said. 

Councilman Terry Hollander said he made the decision to close the meeting to the public in an effort to comply with federal and state recommendations to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. He said he had been in contact with the Attorney General’s Office to make sure the meeting was in compliance with Missouri’s transparency laws. 

“We feel strongly that we abided by the Sunshine Laws,” Hollander told The Missouri Times. “It’s my belief that the Sunshine Laws are there to make sure that government is transparent. I believe that every single thing that was done [today] was extremely transparent.”

Two councilmen who had recently traveled to Illinois were allowed to call into the meeting instead of attending in person. Hollander said members have been able to participate remotely by Skype as well. 

“These are very unusual days we’re living in right now,” Hollander said. 

The four emergency bills dealt with potential failure to comply with public health emergency orders, a response plan from the St. Charles County Department of Corrections during the pandemic, and more. 

In a letter sent to the council about the meeting’s restrictions, Lovasco said the “edict is in direct violation of the provisions of the Missouri Sunshine law.” 

“I wish to remind the Council that any measure voted on or action taken in a meeting illegally closed in violation of the MO Sunshine Law could be ruled unenforceable by a court. In addition, such action will open all involved to potential legal liability,” Lovasco said. 

Lovasco has also been critical of a House measure that would permit government meetings to be closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I think it’s well-intentioned but ultimately you’re telling the public they can’t participate in a meeting … I think that’s a recipe for some bad stuff happening,” Lovasco said. 

The Attorney General’s Office has issued guidance to local governments pertaining to public meetings as the pandemic has changed operations. The Sunshine Law does allow for public meetings to be held in “alternative ways,” such as over video, online, or telephone conferences.