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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Open records benefit community

By Tom Warhover
February 1, 2013 | 5:54 p.m. CST

Dear Reader,

Open records have made for news this week, and journalists prompted none of them.


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Thursday night, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission alleged that the city has pushed aside dialogue, which I take to mean dissent, in order to move forward with plans to tear down houses and build roads for the Grasslands neighborhood.

According to Friday’s Missourian article, Brian Treece said the claim was made after records were made available through an open records request. State law requires governments to provide emails and most other records a public body might be in possession of.

We learned in Wednesday’s Missourian article that Fourth Ward candidate Bill Weitkemper received records he requested concerning city training and uniform budgets. He was unhappy, though, because the city clerk gave the same info to his opponents. He says that’s tipping his hand; City Manager Mike Matthes calls it fair play.

For those of us who have battled “information protectors” for years, the idea of a controversy around over-sharing is novel and delightful. The city and other government bodies in Our Fair Town, though, are pretty knowledgeable and helpful about open records. I’d even hazard to say that the majority would fall into the category of “information providers.” They recognize that government records are the people’s records.

I say this with some reluctance, imagining the next tussle between an official and a Missourian reporter, but also knowing that Columbia is an island of openness compared to the rest of the state, where denial and secrecy are the rules despite the law.

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer has sponsored a bill to give the law a little sharper teeth.

Right now, a government official can be fined up to $1,000 for not complying. However, a person can only collect if that person or government entity knowingly violated the law.

In other words, the burden of proof is on me or you to show a government’s attempt to cover up a record or close a meeting. Now, I concede that there are plenty of ignorant people in government roles out there in the world. But even a smart one can get away with violating the law by simply claiming ignorance.

Schaefer’s bill, according to an Associated Press article, “would reduce the fines to $100 but no longer require that violations were ‘knowing.’ The government also would shoulder the burden of proving a meeting, record or vote could be closed to the public. When a complaint about a Sunshine Law violation is sustained, the courts would be required to order the government to pay the complainant's attorney fees. Judges currently have the option of ordering attorney fees.”

As you might imagine, groups like the Missouri Municipal League and the Missouri Association of Counties don’t like these proposals. The state broadcasters and press associations are firmly in the yes-by-all-means camp.

I reckon you can guess where my vote would fall.

Often, that’s the way Sunshine Law fights are framed. Understandable but unfortunate.

Yes, the press benefits by open records. But as we’ve seen this week, open records laws aren’t written for journalists. They’re written, and used, by all of us.