February 28, 2023 - Let there be darkness-Webb's preferred way to discuss the open-meetings law is: Shut out the public. (Editorial)

February 26, 2023 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) | Author/Byline: St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Staff | Page: A10

Missouri's Sunshine Law is hardly rocket science: Meetings and records in which the public's business is discussed are supposed to be open to the public. So what did St. Louis County Council Chair Shalonda Webb propose as the first substantive order of business during a special session called Saturday specifically to discuss the open-meetings law? To shut out the public and go into executive session, of course.

The worst part of the story is that Webb didn't apparently see the irony. Luckily, other members did. They refused to go into closed session, which prompted Webb to filibuster in protest, which prompted enough members to walk out that there was no longer a quorum. And that's how a meeting to discuss the open-meetings law morphed into no meeting at all.

The fact that a council session collapsed in disarray over the issue of public access should speak volumes to St. Louis County voters about the way their elected government functions. It functions through dysfunction, exactly as it has for the past several years. It should outrage everyone, regardless of political affiliation, that a simple Sunshine Law familiarization session would lead to a standoff.

Webb's justification was that the council needed to hear from the county's attorney, Maggie Brueggemann. The Sunshine Law does, in fact, allow for meetings to be closed to the public when legal issues need to be discussed with government legal counsel. But that provision is specifically limited to pending or active litigation.

Don't take our word for it. Here's what the actual law says: "A public governmental body is authorized to close meetings, records and votes, to the extent they relate to the following: Legal actions, causes of action or litigation involving a public governmental body and any confidential or privileged communications between a public governmental body or its representatives and its attorneys."

Despite Brueggemann's recommendation to close the meeting, members voted against it, to their credit. As the Post-Dispatch's Kelsey Landis reported, the majority's refusal apparently upset Webb, who then filibustered by reading out loud from an 80-page booklet by the state Attorney General's office explaining the Sunshine Law.

Lisa Clancy, a council Democrat, left the meeting. Republican Ernie Trakas tried to interrupt, saying, "All of us are capable of reading the book ourselves. I see no point in taking up valuable time."

Webb wouldn't be swayed. Another Republican, Mark Harder, tried to interrupt but Webb ignored him. Harder left.

It remains unclear why Webb so badly wanted to conduct the public's business behind closed doors or why she behaved the way she did. For the general public, the big question should be: If this is how the top member of the council behaves in public, how does she behave when the public isn't allowed to watch?