- Featured Stories
- Douglas County
- City of Ava
- General Interest
Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information.
Unless you’re in the media or involved with a government board in some way, you have probably not heard a great deal about the Sunshine Law.
The Missouri Sunshine Law states: “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.”
Public Governmental Bodies has a pretty broad definition, but basically it includes legislative, administrative or other governmental entities created by the constitution or statues of the state, or by order or ordinance of any political subdivision or district.
Public bodies include officials who are subject to a public election, including state, county and municipal government, school districts, and special-purpose districts such as fire, ambulance, road, sewer and water districts.
The Sunshine Law says meetings of these boards are open to the public (with a minor few exceptions), and records of these bodies are open to the public.
This open meetings and open information law does not apply just to the news media, although that is who most frequently exercises the right to information. But the law applies to everybody.
Even if the body goes into closed session as provided by law, minutes of that closed meeting must be made available within 72 hours, including the vote. An exception to that clause is that legal actions or settlements might not be open to the public until final disposition, and in some cases a court might order the record closed.
This would be a rare exception, however.
When it comes to personnel matters, the attorney general’s office has ruled that the vote of each board member must be available to the public on votes to hire, fire discipline or promote particular employees in a closed meeting. But the information considered during the closed meeting and before the actual vote is taken does not have to be disclosed.
This provides some protection for the employee.
The Sunshine Law is not a tool to restrict the workings of governmental bodies, but rather is a means of making sure those boards are open and up front with the public – the people who elect them and for whom they work.
The Sunshine Law prohibits board members from meeting at McDonald’s or at the coffee shop and conducting business. Does this mean two board members cannot talk business on the street, in a private home or at a ballgame? No.
But if a majority of the decision-making body is present, and discusses business of that body without first giving notice of the meeting, then the Sunshine Law has been violated.
Having covered hundreds of meetings of city councils and school boards over the past few decades – and as a member of a local public body myself – I can say there have been rare few occasions that the Sunshine Law was intentionally violated in Douglas County.
Furthermore, I have found, as a member of the local ambulance district board of directors, it is sometimes very difficult to comply with every letter of the law, as it is written. But, for the most part, your elected officials, and those who represent our local government bodies, want to be up front with you and provide you with the information you are entitled to.
But when violations occur, or are suspected, the state law provides a means of leverage to obtain that information that is being withheld.
In addition to the Missouri Sunshine Law, the federal government also has a sunshine law requiring public access to information and meetings. It is called the Freedom of Information Act.
Copies of the Missouri Sunshine Law can be obtained from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. The federal Freedom of Information Act can be obtained from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Freedom of Information Center, house in the School of Journalism.
The same information is also available online.