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GUEST COMMENTARY: Support a more open government through the Sunshine Law

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 1:04 p.m. CDT

Take a look out your front door.

Is the sun shining at your city hall? Is it shining at your county courthouse and at your public fire district headquarters?

How bright is the sun shining at the school board's headquarters, at your public water district office and in your public hospital board's meeting room?

March 10-16 is set aside for National Sunshine Week in Missouri and across the U.S. this weeklong observance is a time for citizens and taxpayers to focus on state and local government operations and how those operations are visible to the citizens and taxpayers they serve.

Since 1973, the Missouri has had a Sunshine Law in its statutes. Forty years ago, the Missouri Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, and then-Governor Christopher S. Bond signed it into law.

The Sunshine Law, located in Chapter 610 of Missouri's revised statutes, sets out the rules for public governmental bodies such as city councils, county commissions and boards of education to follow in providing access to their public meetings and public records.

A key passage in Missouri's law says, "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." And, sections of the Sunshine Law "shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy."

This year in Jefferson City, bills are moving through the General Assembly to amend the Sunshine Law with changes that will strengthen the law for citizens. The Missouri Press Association is supporting these bills and has testified in favor of current versions. Testimony supporting the bills has been given by the Missouri School Boards Association, also.

Dissenting testimony has come primarily from the Missouri Municipal League, the St. Louis County Municipal League and the Missouri Association of Counties.

The bills would make more than a dozen changes to the current Sunshine Law, among them:

Two exemptions to the Sunshine Law expired on Dec. 31, 2012. These exemptions, enacted soon after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, protect operational guidelines, security plans and systems of public facilities, such as schools, and the bills would reinstate the two exemptions.

The fine for a violation of the law would be $100. (The current fine for a "knowing" violation of the law ranges up to $1,000.) And, if found guilty by a judge, the public governmental body would be required to pay court costs and fees of the plaintiff who filed the lawsuit.

City councils, county commissions, school boards and other local public bodies would be required to provide 48-hours' notice of their meetings. Currently, 24-hours' notice is required.

Interested members of the public who desire to receive notices of meetings could request such notices from public governmental bodies.

Minutes of a closed meeting would contain a list of subjects discussed during the closed meeting to help avoid discussions straying from the original purpose of the closed meeting.

Missouri is the only state in the nation whose National Guard has a complete, blanket exemption to its state Sunshine Law. It's odd that the federal Freedom of Information Act applies to the Missouri National Guard, but the Missouri Sunshine Law doesn't apply to the taxpayer-funded National Guard. One of the proposals in Jefferson City would eliminate the Guard's exemption.

Senate Bill 139; House Bill 256, 33 & 305; and House Bill 600 contain more bright sunlight shining on government and less darkness.

Two of the Sunshine bills have passed by wide margins in the Missouri Senate and the Missouri House of Representatives, respectively, but they have not reached the finish line and the governor's desk. House Bill 600 awaits consideration in committee.

Key supporters of Sunshine legislation include Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), Sen. Mike Kehoe (R-Jefferson City), Speaker of the House Tim Jones (R-Eureka), Rep. Caleb Jones (R-California), Rep. Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff), Rep. Nate Walker (R-Kirksville), Rep. Casey Guernsey (R-Bethany), Rep. Chris Kelly (D-Columbia), and a host of bill co-sponsors.

If you are interested in a more transparent, open government, the Missouri Press Association urges you to contact State Senators and State Representatives to seek their support in strengthening the Missouri Sunshine Law . . . this year! Ask them to vote for government in the sunshine!

Two years after Missouri legislators passed Senate Bill 1, the late Judge Fred L. Henley of the Missouri Supreme Court in a 1975 decision, Cohen v. Poelker, speaking for the majority in that case, said, "The several sections of Chapter 610, considered together, speak loudly and clearly for the General Assembly that its intent in enacting the Sunshine Law, so called, was that all meetings of members of public governmental bodies ... at which the people's business is considered must be open to the people and not conducted in secrecy, and also that the records of the body and the votes of its members must be open."

It's "the people's business!" Thank you, Judge Henley!

Happy Sunshine Week!

Doug Crews is executive director of the Missouri Press Association.


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