Sunshine Law lets us keep an eye on government

Saturday, February 14, 2004

By Gary Sosniecki

When my wife and I bought our first weekly newspaper in 1980, we planned to give our readers in-person coverage of the local school board and city council.

The school board and city council in our little Ozarks town, accustomed to spending the taxpayers' money in private, didn't exactly welcome us with open arms. In fact, we had so much trouble finding out when the school board was meeting we took to driving past the high school every night to see if the board members' cars were parked out front.

One night when my wife caught the school board in session without advance notice to the public, she accused the superintendent of violating Missouri's Sunshine Law.

The superintendent pointed his finger at Helen's chest and informed her that as long as he tacked a public notice on three hickory trees in the schoolyard, he could hold a school board meeting whenever he darned well pleased. And we and nobody else needed to know about it.

He was wrong then, and he still would be wrong today.

The taxpayers have every right to know what their local governmental boards are doing, either by attending meetings in person or by relying on reporters to cover them for newspapers, radio stations and television stations. The Sunshine Law guarantees those rights. It's an important law not only for those of us in the press, but also for people who work for public governments and for people who pay taxes to local governments.

Like you.

Every dime you pay in taxes goes to fund government at some level.

As an owner-investor in your government, you have a vested interest in how it spends your money. Virtually every decision any public board makes will cost money. The Sunshine Law lets you monitor those decisions by attending meetings or by researching public records. Or by letting the news media monitor them for you.

Last month, the board of aldermen in our current town held a special meeting because of rumors that a gentleman's club might locate here.

The board quickly passed an ordinance restricting where so-called adult businesses could locate.

Because the special meeting was publicized 24 hours in advance as required by the Sunshine Law, about 40 citizens were present to watch and comment on the proceedings.

Another example:

Thanks to a public notice published in my newspaper, I recently learned that a new power plant near my town had applied for an operating permit through the Air Pollution Control Program of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

After writing a letter to the address given in the notice -- again thanks to the Sunshine Law -- I gained access to the entire 49-page application and read for myself how the company said our air quality would be affected.

Unfortunately, the Sunshine Law doesn't always work. Although most public officials believe that government should be conducted in the open, others look for ways to circumvent it. Sometimes their intentions are honorable but uninformed. Sometimes their intentions are not so honorable.

Every year, the Missouri Press Association and many legislators support efforts to strengthen the Sunshine Law by closing loopholes that allow public officials with less-than-honorable intentions to conduct public business in private. Other legislators challenge these efforts, and sometimes the two sides have some good arguments. Again, thanks to the Sunshine Law, this debate is conducted in public.

Since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Missouri Press Association also has been working hard to keep well-intentioned public officials at all levels from using homeland security to justify limiting access to public information that would be of no use to a terrorist.

We also worry that as more public records are closed in the name of homeland security or even in the name of privacy -- have you tried calling a hospital lately to check on a neighbor's health? -- more and more of the public's business will be conducted in private. The rights you now have to see how your tax dollars are spent could gradually disappear, leaving you with the bill for government but none of the oversight.

As we celebrate Sunshine Week in Missouri, it's worth remembering how lucky we are that the Sunshine Law lets the sun shine on what our government is doing.

Gary Sosniecki, co-publisher of The Vandalia (Mo.) Leader is president of the Missouri Press Association.

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