By ERIN RAGAN
SEMO News Service
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. -- Democrats who will select a candidate to run in a June special election to fill a congressional vacancy have changed their plans for a nomination meeting that was to be combined with a candidate forum Sunday.
Committeeman Mike Masterson of Cape Girardeau said members of the 68-member committee that will select a nominee in the election to replace U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson will still meet Sunday in Poplar Bluff, Mo., but will not vote to select a candidate. The committee will, however, hold a closed forum with two candidates, state Rep. Linda Black of Bonne Terre, Mo., and Todd Mahn of De Soto, Mo. The committee plans to nominate a candidate Feb. 9 during a meeting at a yet-to-be determined location. Republican and Libertarian committees will also meet Feb. 9 to conduct nominations.
Masterson also said the Democrat committee will come under new leadership as its chair, Art Cole, resigned Thursday.
The reason the committee is closing the forum to the public and press is not yet known, as the committee's vice chair, Cindy Yenks, wasn't immediately reachable by phone or email Friday morning. Masterson and state Rep. Steve Hodges, who is also a committee member, both said Friday they do not feel the forum should be closed to the public.
It is not yet clear whether the committee should be considered a public governmental body that must abide by the Missouri Sunshine Law, which requires open meetings and records.
The Missouri attorney general's office could not say whether the committees are public bodies -- there is no case law and the office has offered no opinions on the matter -- that are subject to open meetings and records laws. The committees are established by state law, including specifics such as when the committees are to meet and that each committee is to name a man and woman to the chair and vice chair positions. A spokeswoman reached at the attorney general's office said she was unsure what executive office, if any, would be responsible for holding the committees accountable to obeying the laws.
Messages left with the Missouri Democratic Party headquarters had not been returned early Friday afternoon.
Republicans in charge of two public forums for possible nominees held in recent weeks by the party were quick to criticize the Democrat committee's apparent lack of openness in the candidate selection process.
"This process should be as open and transparent as humanly possible," said Eddy Justice, chair of the Republican committee. "To hide any part of it smacks of having something to hide, of decisions being made by a select few in a smoke-filled backroom, embarrassment due to lack of organization or a combination of all three. These committees are public organizations and their activities should function accordingly."
Southeast Missourian editor Bob Miller and managing editor Matt Sanders contributed to this report.