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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Let the light shine for open government

By Tom Warhover
March 11, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Happy Sunshine Week.


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The official motto for the week is: “Open government is good government.” I prefer the motto of my old mentor Ronald L. Speer, often repeated in this space:

Good deeds aren’t done in the dark.

So how have you benefited from your state’s Sunshine Laws? Among the published reports that were built with open records:

Little legislation and a law without teeth: Anna Boiko-Weyrauch’s research showed that, when it comes to distracted driving, Missouri’s 21-and-under cellphone ban led to less than four tickets or charges a month; that crashes involving cellphones continues to rise while the total number of auto accidents has dropped nearly by half; and that distracted driving is rarely prosecutable, even in cases that lead to death.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol, the Office of State Courts Administrator and the state’s courts were among the sources for statistics and other documents. Boiko-Weyrauch says she made more than a dozen Sunshine Law requests.

United, Allegiant  and other airline ups and downs: Columbia Regional Airport remains one of the big issues in mid-Missouri. Attracting and retaining flights has been Mayor Bob McDavid’s biggest project.

Reporter Richard Webner used the Sunshine Law to request correspondence between McDavid, city manager Mike Matthes and officials from airlines companies. Through documents and interviews, Webner was able to recreate the negotiations that landed American and its flights to Chicago and Dallas. Emails also suggested that talks with United Airlines were continuing.

Webner attached all the emails as well as draft contracts for service with United. Through DocumentCloud, the Missourian has been able to upload more original documents than ever before. A next step for Missourian staff will be to annotate more documents — to point out and explain specific points within long or complex rulings or agendas or contracts, for instance.

In the following week, you’ll hear from Doug Crews, the executive director of the Missouri Press Association. Crews has written an excellent summary of attempts to strengthen the Sunshine Law; too many government officials look for ways to avoid providing you with documents or keeping meetings open, and there are too few repercussions for doing so.

A friend of mine scoffed when I told him about this week's topic — at the idea of any of these designated days or weeks or months. His point: If it's important enough to name a week, why shouldn't these issues be promoted or protected throughout the year? Among the other March observances is National Bubble Week, beginning March 20, and Celebrate Your Name Week, which just ended. (I missed the party and can only pray that other Tom's across the country toasted to Tomdom.) 

My support for open records and open meetings is constant, but it doesn't hurt to have a little reminder now and then. My passion for sunshine is also based on self-interest. Openness is required for democracy. Democracy is required for journalism. Journalism is required for openness.