Open meetings

Thursday, November 13, 2003

The Cape Girardeau School District, faced with a sizable shortfall in funding, is concerned about how to best spend its available dollars. Superintendent Mark Bowles has sought the assistance of a task force -- 64 school district employees, 45 community members and himself -- to come up with ideas for cutting $2.2 million from the district's $35 million budget.

The task force selected by Bowles has held an organizational meeting and five other meetings where discussion groups have delved into the district's financial intricacies. They have tried to think of every possible consideration as they move toward making suggestions that Bowles plans to turn into recommendations to be considered by the school board, which will have the task of making cuts.

Except for the first organizational meeting, the task force has met without public scrutiny. On Monday, a reporter from the Southeast Missourian attempted to go to the task force's meeting but was asked to leave by the superintendent. The reporter asked the school board for permission to attend (the school board was meeting the same night) but was denied.

The task force met again on Tuesday, and the reporter and a school district resident who had requested to be on the task force but was not selected went to the meeting. The resident was allowed to stay -- provided he only observed and did not participate, but the reporter was again asked to leave.

The district takes the position that, since the task force was not appointed by the school board but was hand-picked by the superintendent, the task force is not a public body and, therefore, is not subject to Missouri's Sunshine Law, which requires government meetings to be open to the public except in rare instances.

The Southeast Missourian respectfully disagrees. So does the Missouri Press Association's attorney who specializes in Sunshine Law cases. Jean Maneke says she believes the task force was appointed by an agent of the school board and is clearly a public body. And its meeting should be open to anyone who wants to attend.

The district believes -- and many people will agree -- that there are times when even public officials should be allowed to meet privately to discuss tough and ticklish issues without public scrutiny. While that is an emotional justification that resonates well with the commonsense thinking of many folks in this area, it controverts the idea of open government in a democratic society.

Harry Truman was blunt, as usual, when he said in 1950: "Secrecy and a free, democratic government don't mix." That's the spirit of the Sunshine Law, which 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."

The last task force meeting is scheduled for tonight. By the time any legal wrangling could be resolved over the differing viewpoints on this matter, the superintendent will have forwarded his cost-cutting ideas to the school board.

But for future reference, it would be good to have an impartial party give an opinion on whether groups like the superintendent's task force is a public body or not. This could be accomplished if the district would ask for an attorney general's opinion, which would serve as a good guide.

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