Missouri Sunshine group aims to pursue transparent government

Friday, March 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Journalists might be called many things, but "political strategist" is rarely one of them.

"Reactively whining is a bad political strategy," said Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Center, at a kickoff Thursday afternoon for the Missouri Sunshine Coalition.

Davis was referring to the response journalists sometimes give after having difficulty obtaining public records quickly and easily. He said he hopes the newly formed coalition can take more proactive steps to promote transparency in government.

For example, the group plans to hold workshops to inform not only journalists but also attorneys, residents and public officials about their rights regarding public records and to make them generally more informed about the intricacies of the Sunshine Law.

 The kickoff, which took place at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the MU School of Journalism, included both a reception and a program.

Speakers included Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, who talked about the strategies his office intends to implement to beef up enforcement of and compliance with the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Law, more commonly known as the Sunshine Law. It outlines state statutes on public meetings and records, and on the votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies.

"Transparency is good for government," said Koster, who became attorney general in January.

Koster said he has hired a team of five attorneys to handle all complaints about noncompliance with the Sunshine Law and to help people who are seeking public records. He also promised that public officials who refuse to comply will be prosecuted, though he said it should rarely come to that.

"People want to comply with this law, generally speaking," he said. "Violations occur due to ignorance."

Koster also addressed problems with the ambiguity of the Sunshine Law when it comes to modern technology. Gray areas include whether e-mail, voice mail and the use of social networking sites and text messages should be considered public records.

"I think it should be noted ... there are many areas of Section 109 (which deals with electronic public records) that I think are ambiguous in an electronic age," he said. "The attorney general's office will take a broad view."

Still, problems with technological bugs in government offices, ignorance among attorneys and residents, and the tricky language of the law still could pose problems.

"It's not the easiest law in the statutes," Koster said.

Forty-seven of 50 states have sunshine coalitions, but simply having the coalitions is not enough, Davis said.

"We have to keep the issue on the radar," Davis said.

Applications to join the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, along with more information  about the group, can be found on the group's Web site.

Both Davis and Missouri Sunshine Coalition president Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, said the group encourages everyone to get involved.

"The success of this group depends on a strong, diverse membership," Robertson said.

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