In both meteorology and metaphor, the sun came out Thursday in Columbia.
If you ventured outside, you got a hint of spring. If you ventured into the Reynolds Journalism Institute at MU, you got an introduction to a new service that holds for journalists and normal people alike the possibility of easier access to the workings of our state and local governments.
This is, in case you’ve missed the news, Sunshine Week, which — as I’ve written previously — is a kind of gimmick created by journalists and our fellow travelers in hopes of drawing public attention to the value of openness in government. Not altogether coincidentally, journalists also hope to remind you of the value of what we do in reporting on the activities of government at all levels.
And that brings me back to Thursday and to OpenMissouri.org. That’s a new website developed over the past few months by David Herzog and a team of graduate students. David is an experienced journalist who usually teaches computer-assisted reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. He’s currently a fellow of the Reynolds Institute. OpenMissouri.org is his fellowship project.
If you take a look, you’ll find that it’s a searchable catalog of, so far, 135 databases maintained by the state and various subdivisions. The catalog tells you where you can find the data, what’s there and how current the information is. It’s the sort of thing you might expect some public official to have created for the use of us citizens, but none has. After all, the information is made public by law.
Introducing a daylong set of presentations about how to get and use such public information, Herzog pointed out that the new catalog isn’t complete yet. Not all agencies have been equally forthcoming. There’s a handy button on the home page offering the opportunity for anybody to suggest new records that should be added.
The sunshine metaphor we like to use as a synonym for openness or transparency comes from a famous line written nearly 100 years ago by Louis Brandeis, who pointed out that bad deeds are done in darkness and that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Thursday’s speakers included one from the Sunlight Foundation, a national organization devoted to obtaining and sharing the records that should be public.
The Sunshine Law, as I’m sure you know, is the semi-official name of Chapter 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes — aka the Open Meetings and Open Records Law. Its key sentence is this: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.”
That policy, as I’m sure you also know, is subject to both legal and practical limits, such as the city of Columbia’s insistence on charging what officials term the “reasonable costs” of providing the records. A recent survey by the Missouri Sunshine Coalition demonstrates that too often, in the darker corners of the state, even local sheriffs are unaware or unwilling to comply with the letter or the spirit of the law.
Sunshine Week surrounds the March 16 birthday of James Madison, who is often called “the father of the Constitution” and who chaired the committee that drafted the Bill of Rights. He didn’t know about Sunshine Week, but he did know its basis. He said, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”
Most of the “popular information” we need to govern ourselves is provided by the often-maligned mainstream press. A great deal of that comes from the records now maintained as digital databases by the “popular government.”
OpenMissouri.org offers a gateway to acquiring access. See for yourself.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.