CLAYTON — A Sunshine Law expert said Monday that a St. Louis County Council plan to create a private “task force” would recommend how spending $74.2 million in federal pandemic aid would violate laws. on open folders if it did not allow public access.
The notice contradicts claims by some council members on Saturday that three of them could form a ‘task force’ to make recommendations on a long list of competing proposals for federal aid remaining from a $193 million grant dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act last year.
Such a task force would circumvent a legal requirement that any meeting of four or more of the seven council members be held in public, with a minimum of 24 hours’ notice of the agenda.
But that doesn’t mean the council’s proposed three-member “task force” can meet without allowing public access, said Missouri Press Association attorney Jean Maneke.
The Sunshine Law prohibits government bodies from meeting with less than a quorum for the express purpose of discussing public business and then ratifying decisions at a subsequent meeting. And the state’s definition of a governmental public body includes “any advisory committee appointed by or under the direction of ‘another public body’ for the specific purpose of recommending, directly to the public body’s board of directors or its Chief Executive Officer, policies or policy revisions, or the expenditure of public funds…”
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“That’s exactly what you’re talking about,” Maneke said in an interview. “And if that group has to meet and report to the public body, then it’s subject to the Sunshine Act.”
This forces the group to hold public meetings, with 24 hours notice on its agenda. Private meetings would “absolutely” violate the law, she said.
Tom Sullivan, a frequent local government watchdog, wrote to the council on Monday morning with the same concerns.
Sullivan said he was watching the hearing on Saturday and was “surprised when they started talking about ways to escape the Sunshine Law.”
“It doesn’t interfere with their procedures in any way,” he said. “All they have to do is just keep them open to the public, that’s all.”
A majority of six county council members had appeared to agree on Saturday to form the three-member “task force” in a two-hour hearing, and council chairwoman 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 a comprehensive plan on how to spend federal money left over after more than a year and a half with ARPA funds in hand. . The board has earmarked more than $109 million, using $80 million to fill budget holes caused by pandemic-related revenue losses on the recommendation of County Executive Sam Page. But a long list of other proposals introduced over the past eight months have been stuck on the board’s agenda without any deliberation or action.
Local governments have until 2024 to appropriate the money. The council halted discussion earlier this year for a public inquiry and a series of town halls with Page’s office seeking community input. They again suspended decisions in April until the state budget was set and the board was certain of which proposals would benefit from state matching grants.
This 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’s unclear exactly how much the county would be required to invest for each project.
The council has another list of proposals targeting a total of $77.4 million. And the council’s fiscal policy coordinator, Chris Grahn-Howard, warned the body on Saturday that the county is projecting $72 million in budget shortfalls over the next two years.
Some council members also said they hoped to get cash from the county from a regional legal settlement with the NFL and the Rams, and $45 million from a state settlement with manufacturers. and opioid distributors.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, who has proposed a series of projects in his mostly unincorporated Southern County district, suggested that a “task force” could look into it all and “then make a recommendation to the advice on this basis, and give a precise timetable within which to do so.
“The more this thing becomes a living, breathing committee, ‘let’s hold a public hearing every week,’ nothing will get done,” Trakas said. “And that’s why we’re sitting here two years later and still talking about it.”
Days, who has chaired the council for the past year and a half, agreed.
“Once we continue to have meetings like we do now, I just don’t think much will be accomplished,” Days said. “We’ve already gone through this process and we’re still not moving forward.”
Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, opposed it.
“This committee absolutely cannot do its job in secret,” she said. “These must be public meetings.”
Margaret Brueggeman, a solicitor in the county councilor’s office assigned to the council, said: ‘We would need to assess the purpose of the meeting and what it would look like if you form an actual committee.
“At this point, I don’t want to tolerate the idea that you might meet in private,” she said.
Trakas, a lawyer in private practice, argued that the group would not make any formal decision, only “a recommendation”.
“If it was a working group, as opposed to a committee, there’s no need for public hearings for that, is there? … What’s the difference between me, Councilor Days and Councilor Harder meeting over coffee? »
Days and Webb did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
Trakas said he was asked for additional guidance from County Councilor Beth Orwick’s office.
When asked why the task force 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 “task force” would be more productive than the full board.
“They have a hard time making decisions, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it’s their job to do it. And I think whatever they do, it has to be done in a way that the public knows what’s going on.”