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Sunshine Law expert sounds alarm over St. Louis County Council plan

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CLAYTON — A Sunshine Law expert said Monday that a St. Louis County Council plan to have a private “working group” recommend how to spend $74.2 million in federal pandemic aid would violate open records laws if it doesn’t allow public access.

The advice contradicted assertions by some council members Saturday that three of them could form a “working group” to make recommendations on a long list of competing proposals for federal aid left over from a $193 million American Rescue Plan Act grant last year.

Such a working group would skirt a legal requirement that any meeting of four or more of the seven council members occur in public, with a minimum 24 hours notice of the agenda.

But that doesn’t mean the council’s proposed three-member “working group” can meet without allowing the public access, said Jean Maneke, an attorney with the Missouri Press Association.

Sunshine Law forbids government bodies from meeting with less than a quorum with an express purpose to discuss public business and then ratify decisions at a later meeting. And the state definition of a public governmental body includes “any advisory committee appointed by or at the direction of” another public body “for the specific purpose of recommending, directly to the public body’s governing board or its chief administrative officer, policy or policy revisions or expenditures of public funds ...”

“That is exactly what you’re talking about,” Maneke said in an interview. “And if this group is to meet and report back to the public body, then they’re subject to the Sunshine Law.”

That requires the group to hold meetings publicly, with 24 hours notice of its agenda. Private meetings would “absolutely” violate the law, she said.

Tom Sullivan, a frequent local government watchdog, wrote to the council Monday morning with the same concerns.

Sullivan said he was watching the hearing Saturday and was “surprised when they started talking about ways to evade the Sunshine Law.”

“It doesn’t interfere with any of their proceedings,” he said. “All they have to do is simply keep them open to the public, that’s all.”

A majority of six County Council members had appeared to agree Saturday to form the three-member “working group” during a two-hour hearing, and Council Chair Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, asked Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, D-4th District, to form the group and select at least one of the council’s three Republicans.

The suggestion came amid frustration that the council is no closer to an overall plan for how to spend the remaining federal money after more than a year and a half with the ARPA funds in hand. The council has appropriated nearly $119 million, using $80 million to plug budget holes caused by pandemic-related revenue losses at County Executive Sam Page’s recommendation. But a long list of other proposals introduced over the past eight months have stalled on the council agenda without any deliberation or action.

Local governments have until 2024 to appropriate the money. The council paused discussion earlier this year for a public survey and a series of town halls with Page’s office seeking community input. They paused decisions again in April until the state budget was set and the council was certain which proposals could benefit from state-matching grants.

That budget, signed by Gov. Mike Parson on July 1, sets aside a total of up to $74.2 million in matching grants for a handful of specific St. Louis County projects. But it remains unclear how much exactly the county would be required to put in for each project.

The council has another list of proposals seeking a total $77.4 million. And council budget policy coordinator Chris Grahn-Howard warned the body Saturday that county projects $72 million in budget deficits over the next two years.

Some council members also said they hoped to tap any money from the county’s share of a regional legal settlement with the NFL and Rams, and from $45 million from a state settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, who has proposed a range of projects in his mostly unincorporated South County district, suggested a “working group” could consider all that and “and then make a recommendation back to the council based on that, and give a specific timeline in which to do it.”

“The more this thing becomes a living, breathing, ‘let’s have a public hearing every week’ committee, nothing will get done,” Trakas said. “And that’s why we’re sitting here two years down the road now still talking about this.”

Days, who has chaired the council over the past year and a half, concurred.

“Once we continue to have meetings as we have now, I just don’t think much is going to be accomplished,” Days said. “We’ve already gone through this process, and we’re still not moving forward.”

Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, objected.

“That committee absolutely cannot do its work in secret,” she said. “These have to be public meetings.”

Margaret Brueggemann, associate county counselor, said, “We would need to evaluate the purpose of the meeting and what that looks like if you are forming an actual committee.

“At this point, I don’t want to condone the idea that you could be meeting in private,” she said.

Trakas, an attorney in private practice, argued the group wouldn’t be making any formal decisions, only “a recommendation.”

“If this was a working group, as opposed to a committee, there’s no need to have public hearings for it, is there? ... What is the difference between that myself, Councilwoman Days and Councilmember Harder meeting over coffee?”

Days and Webb did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Trakas said that he was asked for further advice from County Counselor Beth Orwick’s office.

Asked why the working group shouldn’t just hold public meetings, he said in a statement: “I just want to get things done.”

Orwick declined to comment.

Sullivan said he didn’t understand how a “working group” would be anymore productive than the full council.

“They’re having a difficult time making decisions, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it’s their job to to do it. And I think that whatever they do, it needs to be done in a manner that the public knows what’s going on.”

Posted at 7 p.m. Monday, July 11.

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Reporter covering St. Louis County politics. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi, and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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