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DEAR READER: Kurt Schaefer's bill adds some heft to state's Sunshine Law

Friday, March 14, 2014 | 7:47 p.m. CDT; updated 4:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Good news, Columbia. The United States one-upped Haiti in this year’s World Press Freedom Index.

Yep, that’s right. The land of the free clocked in 46th on the index.  Countries ranked higher include Ghana, El Salvador and Estonia. The best countries: Finland, Netherlands and Norway.

Reporters Without Borders, the organization that does the ranking, noted that the U.S. fell 13 places, “one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks.” It cited the seizure of Associated Press phone records and the conviction of Pfc. Bradley Manning as a few of the examples. A New York Times reporter was ordered to testify against a source. The hunt for mega-leaker and former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden continues.

But let us not dwell on the Obama administration’s search for would-be do-gooding scofflaws. After all, Sunshine Week is upon us.

What, you’ve forgotten to mark it on your calendar? Don’t worry. You have all next week to celebrate. Look for news organizations and watchdog groups of all types popping the cork over our access to government records, but they’ll also bemoan all the ways government bars people.

This month, the Sunshine Law allowed the Missourian access to documents relating to concerns about and work done at University Village, where a Columbia firefighter died in a walkway collapse. We could all read the probable-cause statement in the homicide of 8-month-old Finley Steele because Missouri statute says, “All incident reports and arrest reports shall be open records.

Exceptions to the law allowed the UM System Board of Curators to close the doors to four meetings since Feb. 5. The March 5 announcement said the closed session was “for consideration of certain confidential or privileged communications with university counsel, negotiated contracts and personnel matters.” The next day, we all learned that the highest-paid public official in the state just got a mere 10.7 percent pay raise, to $3.1 million guaranteed salary. Don’t cry for Coach Pinkel, though. His incentive bonuses and pay for things like wearing Mizzou apparel increased, as well.

Changes to the Sunshine Law could be coming.

The presumption in the law right now is that the actions of a public body be open to the public and that exceptions should be “strictly constructed.” Our own Sen. Kurt Schaefer has sponsored a bill that would tighten some of the language in those exceptions to open records or meetings.

A hearing was held on the bill  Monday. As you might expect, the Missouri Press Association is in favor of the bill. The Missouri Municipal League, the Missouri Association of Counties and the Missouri School Boards Association are some of the groups in opposition.

Some of the proposed changes that I particularly like:

Top job applicants: The names and qualifications of the final five applicants for a top administrative position would be open. So when the search for a new MU chancellor was on, we would have been able to know the names of  the finalists and, presumably, be able to weigh in on their qualifications. Instead, the university simply announced the winner, R. Bowen Loftin, who says he'll reveal the finalists for the open provost's job.

Sunshine violations: Right now, it’s next to impossible to hold public officials accountable because a complaint must show that they “knowingly" violated the law. Schaefer’s bill would remove the word.

Timeliness: Sometimes, a Sunshine request at the local level is referred to the state’s attorney general’s office. The local folks want an opinion of whether they have to open up some record or other. The bill would give the attorney general 45 days to respond.

Everyone needs a deadline.

Passage of the bill won’t get the United States ahead of Switzerland or Namibia on the World Press Freedom Index 2015. But it won’t hurt.

Tom


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