Sunshine Week promotes knowledge about open government, access to information

Monday, March 12, 2012 | 6:38 p.m. CDT; updated 6:50 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 12, 2012

COLUMBIA — Closed public meetings were the biggest source of violations to Missouri's Sunshine Law over the past two years, according to a report by State Auditor Tom Schweich.

The state auditor released the report to coincide with the start of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote knowledge about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

The Sunshine Law excerpt

Chapter 610 RSMo, Section 610.011: "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. Sections 610.010 to 610.200 shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy."

Test your Sunshine Law knowledge with the Ray of Sunshine game.

Under Missouri's Sunshine Law, which legislates government transparency, most meetings of governmental bodies must be open and accessible to the public.

"The Sunshine Law is aptly named," Deputy State Auditor Harry Otto said. "It's trying to shine the light of day on the actions of our elected, sometimes appointed, officials in government, so their actions are exposed to taxpayers that are funding those projects and the salaries of the people making the decisions."

The Sunshine Law allows but does not require closed meetings when governmental bodies, such as a city council or school board, are discussing specific personnel, real estate or legal matters.

According to the law, before a public governmental body can close a meeting it must stating why it wants to close a particular meeting and what part of the law lets them do so during an open session. Then it must vote if the matter is appropriate, according to Sunshine standards, to discuss in a closed forum. Depending on the content, some information about the meeting might be made public later.

Of the 300 reports issued about various government bodies' conduct (including cities, counties, school districts and state agencies) between January 2010 and December 2011:

  • Fifty-five violated the Sunshine Law in one or more ways.  
  • Thirty-four failed to write or keep public notes about their reasons for closing meetings.
  • Twenty-nine did not document why it was OK to discuss their issues in a closed meeting.
  • Sixteen failed to take proper notes during the closed meeting, such as who attended and what was discussed or voted on.

This year's report shows little change from a 2008-09 audit, when 59 local governments and agencies had violations.

"Sometimes it's a technicality that they didn't write down what they discussed or what the votes were," Otto said.

Many of the violations happened in small towns or villages, where elected officials might not be familiar with or aware of the Sunshine Law — though they should be, Otto said.

"I think the willful violations are generally few and far between," he said. "I think most of the time it's ignorance of the law or carelessness or a shortcut, and it's not generally a willful intent to deny the public what is going on."

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