Open government

Sunday, August 3, 2008

In all the years since Missouri legislators first enacted the Sunshine Law, the state's open meeting and open records law, public officials, appointed and elected, have used ignorance of the law as an excuse for not complying with its many provisions.

The intent and purpose of the Sunshine Law is plainly stated in Section 610.011: "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 Sunshine Law is, and always has been, intended to give the public access to the workings and records of government. In large measure, it is the news media, in their efforts to inform the public, that have been most closely identified with using the Sunshine Law to get access to meetings and records of public governmental bodies. But this law is for the public, and more and more individuals now understand their rights to get information from every level of city, county and state government.

Every board, committee, panel, study group or any other entity whose members are appointed by a government entity becomes a public government entity under the Sunshine Law. Many of these appointed officials, who volunteer their time in an effort to provide public service, frequently claim they are unaware of the Sunshine Law's requirements. The attorney general's office provides Sunshine Law training for public officials. And it was encouraging last week to see that the Cape Girardeau County Commission unanimously agreed to provided Sunshine Law handbooks to members of the county's advisory boards and to county department heads.

Less encouraging, however, was last Sunday's reporting of concerns about abuses of the Sunshine Law. Particularly noteworthy were those instances when public officials said they were aware of the Sunshine Law but didn't intend to comply.

It is also discouraging when public officials are advised by their attorneys to disregard Sunshine Law provisions knowing that enforcement is hit-and-miss at best.

The widespread application of the Sunshine Law depends on demands from the public that all of its provisions are followed. When citizens who expect government openness express their concerns on Election Day, they will be contributing to better compliance by public officials.

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