January 27, 2023 - St. Louis County's private budget talks break Missouri law, advocates say

January 27, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Author/Byline: Kelsey Landis St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Page: A1 | Section: News

CLAYTON — Transparency advocates are pushing St. Louis County to open private budget talks to the public, arguing that the county is breaking state law in closing them.

County Executive Sam Page and three members of the County Council will be part of a group that meets behind closed doors at weekly "working sessions" to hammer out solutions to the county's $41 million budget hole. The group will provide public updates on discussions monthly, said Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page. Budget talks will cover sensitive topics like job cuts, and county leaders need to be able to speak freely, said Republican Councilman Dennis Hancock of Fenton, a member of the group.

"If it becomes a large meeting, it tends to get bogged down in grandstanding," Hancock said.

Missouri law, however, is clear that such meetings should be public, lawyers and advocates say: Government meetings with a quorum — four of seven members, in the county council's case — are clearly open to the public, according to Missouri's Sunshine Law. But the law also prohibits government bodies from meeting with less than a quorum if they intend to discuss public business that will be ratified at a later meeting.

"I'd go into court and try to argue this is a de-facto subcommittee," said Jean Maneke, an attorney with the Missouri Press Association. "The whole council knows about it and they're expecting to get a report once a month. It sounds like a subcommittee to me."

Elad Gross, an open-government advocacy lawyer, said the Sunshine Law makes it clear that government meetings, even when a quorum isn't present, should be open to the public. There are a few exceptions for discussing issues such as personnel or privileged legal information.

"The bottom line is if you're going to hold public authority, the public ought to know what is going on," Gross said.

Tom Sullivan, a St. Louis County resident and frequent speaker at county council meetings, said the meetings should be treated like any other public meeting.

"The purpose of the three Council members at the meeting was to discuss public business — the St. Louis County budget — and make recommendations to the full Council. That was made clear," Sullivan wrote in an email to council members Wednesday.

Councilman Ernie Trakas, too, argued the meetings should be open to the public. "It's certainly not what I envisioned," Trakas, a Republican from South County, said at the council's Tuesday meeting about the closed-door plan.

Council Chair Shalonda Webb, a Democrat from unincorporated North County, shot back at Trakas: "What I'm going to ask of you, sir, is to allow us civility and grace to allow us to put a full framework in place that will engage the public," Webb said.

The public wasn't invited to attend the group's first meeting in-person, but the meeting was streamed online.

Moore, Page's spokesman, said the county will hold some town hall-style meetings that will be open to the public.

And Page said the working group will give monthly public updates to keep the process transparent.

"It's essential that we have these meetings now so that everyone is informed," Page said.

Councilman Hancock, the former mayor of Fenton, said he has asked the county counselor's office for an opinion on the private working sessions.

"Our intent is not to go against the Sunshine Law, but to get the ball moving forward, you have to have small groups discussing things," Hancock said.

The County Council tried last year to keep pandemic aid talks private, too. It reversed course a few days later.

Caption: St. Louis County Council member Ernie Trakas, a Republican, and Chair Shalonda Webb, a Democrat, discuss the county's budget process at the Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, meeting.