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Government, Politics & Issues

Nixon wants shield for safety plans renewed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2013 - Flanked by more than three dozen law enforcement officials from around the St. Louis area, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called Friday for quick reinstatement of a provision in state law to keep security plans and procedures for public facilities under wraps.

An exception for such plans under the state's Sunshine Law expired at the end of 2012 despite efforts in the General Assembly to extend it. A bill to reinstate it through the end of 2016 has been prefiled, and Nixon told a news conference at the University of Missouri-St. Louis that it should be at the top of lawmakers' list of priorities when they reconvene in Jefferson City next week.

"There's a need for quick action to help keep schools and communities safe," he said.

Nixon noted that the exemption for security plans and procedures was first enacted in the wake of 9/11, when he was attorney general. At that time, he said, much effort went into balancing the competing needs of openness in government and public safety.

Once those concerns were worked through, he said, the law was renewed without controversy when it first expired. He said there was no "significant opposition" to a second renewal last year, but no bill that included the provision managed to make it through the legislature.

In a statement released by his office, Nixon said the exemption represents "a proven and balanced approach to keeping sensitive security plans out of the hands of criminals and terrorists -- while respecting the bedrock principles of transparency and accountability.

"Now is not the time to undermine the shared efforts of school officials, law enforcement, fire personnel and first responders to enhance our readiness over the past decade by weakening laws that protect our communities."

The exemption would apply to buildings such as schools and courthouses as well as to hospitals, Nixon said.

"These secure plans are important," he said, "and it's important to keep them secure.... You don't hand the keys to your house or the code to your alarm system over to a burglar."

In response to a question, the governor said he was not clear whether the law would thwart a request about whether such plans and procedures even existed, as opposed to one seeking the details of what they contained.

Noting that the exemptions have already been in place for a decade, Nixon called them "narrowed and tailored exceptions that work and should be allowed to continue to work." He asked lawmakers to send the reinstatement and extension to his desk as soon as possible.

"We don't need to change any language," he said. "We don't need to do dramatic things here."

Pointing to the array of law enforcement officials standing behind him, the governor noted that crime has been down in Missouri. Extending the exemption for security plans and procedures could help make sure Missouri has none of the kinds of incidents that have stricken schools and other facilities elsewhere, he said.

"We need to give them the tools they need to do what they do well," Nixon said of the public safety agencies.

Jerry Lee, head of the state Department of Public Safety, said that as of now, with the exemption having expired, if someone sought access to such plans and procedures under the Sunshine Law, the request would likely end up in court. He said he expected that a judge would deny it.

Lee noted that the original exception was worked out with the cooperation and blessing of the Missouri Press Association. Doug Crews, executive director of the association, told the Beacon Friday that the group supports extending the exemption in its current form for another four years.

The whole point, he said, is to not make it any easier for would-be criminals to carry out their plans by knowing what the response might be.

"It sounds simple," Lee said, "but it all boils down to public safety and the safety of our most important citizens, our children."

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