Practically anyone can tell you that today, March 17, is St. Patrick’s Day. But few people know, or even care, that March 12-18 is also Sunshine Week.
What does that mean?
The so-called “Sunshine Law” means any public governmental body is supposed to be open and transparent to the public. If citizens elect the rulemakers, they have a right to know how the rulemakers vote, how they spend public money, and the information that was available to help them reach their decisions.
There’s not enough space available here to explain all of Missouri’s Sunshine Law, but the following is the introduction from the Sunshine Law booklet distributed by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.
Missouri Sunshine Law – Open Meetings and Records Law
The Missouri Sunshine Law was introduced in the General Assembly as Senate Bill 1 in 1973. This was seven years after the Freedom of Information Act was passed in Congress and the same year that the United States Senate Watergate Committee conducted its hearings. With the passage of Senate Bill 1, Missouri became one of the earliest advocates of ensuring that meetings and records would be open to the public throughout all aspects of government.
Missouri’s commitment to openness in government is clearly stated in § 610.011, RSMo, of the Sunshine Law: “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. Sections 610.010 to 610.200 shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy.”
The law sets out the specific instances when a meeting, record, or vote may be closed, while stressing these exceptions are to be strictly interpreted to promote the public policy of openness.
Public meetings, including meetings conducted by telephone, Internet or other electronic means, are to be held at reasonably convenient times and must be accessible to the public. Meetings should be held in facilities that are large enough to accommodate anticipated attendance by the public and accessible to persons with disabilities.
We are pleased to provide you with this new Sunshine Law booklet containing recent changes to the Missouri statutes, case law and Attorney General Opinions by category, information regarding records requests, and two sections of frequently asked questions. (The entire booklet is online, or is available from the Attorney General’s office)
Joshua D. Hawley, Missouri Attorney General
The Missouri Sunshine Law is probably the most violated law in the state, and the least challenged. Is it because citizens of the community don’t care? Or have we just conceded to “What’s the use?” I fear it may be the latter.
To be quite honest, most meetings of public boards are pretty boring. But yet, if you wish to attend one of those meetings, you have that right. And whether you attended the meeting or if you didn’t, you have a right to know what happened at the meeting. Unfortunately, we all know that is not always the case.
If we (the newspaper) request minutes of a meeting – open or closed – the public board is required by law to release those minutes. But you, as a taxpayer of the community, have that same right and privilege.
And if they refuse? I had a hallway discussion with attorney Jean Maneke about this two weeks ago when we were at the Capitol. Jean is the “Legal Hotline” attorney for the Missouri Press Association and deals with Sunshine Law issues on a daily basis.
Sunshine Law violations are easily detected, but what then? Do we foot the bill for an attorney and sue? If we do, do we become the bad guy? And what if we win, what do we get? Satisfaction. That’s all.
What it really comes down to is the integrity of those we elect to the various boards. They work for us. Sometimes they need to be reminded.