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Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014

High court clears way for lawsuit

Wednesday, September 8, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit alleging the Sikeston City Council violated the states open meetings law with the 2001 passage of a zoning ordinance that some city landowners opposed.

Stoddard County Associate Circuit Judge Stephen Mitchell dismissed the lawsuit as moot in September 2002 after the council had repealed the disputed ordinance a month earlier.

R.E.J. Inc., which owns property near the temporarily rezoned area and brought the lawsuit, appealed claiming the councils subsequent action didnt negate the purported violation of Missouris Sunshine Law, which requires government proceedings to be open to the public.

In its brief 6-0 decision, the Supreme Court remanded the case to Mitchell to determine if the council violated the law.

Writing for the high court, Judge William Ray Price Jr. drew a distinction between the repeal of an official act of government and a court declaring such an act to be invalid.

Once repealed, although the statute becomes prospectively ineffective, its previous effect is not necessarily invalidated, Price wrote.

However, to declare a statute void means that it never had the authority to create any legal rights or responsibilities whatsoever.

Therefore, the court ruled, R.E.J. still has the right to ask a judge to declare that the ordinance never had the force of law during the year between its original passage and repeal.

James Robison, the citys attorney in this case, said the Supreme Courts opinion will have little practical effect.

At best the judge could find an ordinance that has already been repealed is void and enforceable, Robison said. Im not sure how that really changes anything.

If the lower court were to find the council violated the Sunshine Law, however, the city could be subject to a maximum $500 fine and be required to pay the legal fees incurred by R.E.J. Jean Maneke, an expert on the Sunshine Law and attorney for the Missouri Press Association, said the ruling clarifies that a public entity may not avoid sanctions for violations by taking corrective action after the fact. The press association is not a party to the lawsuit.

What it does is add one little brick to the structure of the Sunshine Law, Maneke said.

The dispute began in June 2001 when Greers Grove Development submitted a proposal to rezone 12 acres along North Main Street in Sikeston from agricultural to commercial. The Sikeston Planning and Zoning Commission rejected the request, but the city council overruled the commission a month later.