Workshop educates public on Sunshine Law

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tom Durkin believes the Sunshine Law is necessary.

However, he said, if governmental bodies were to follow the golden rule of treating others how they want to be treated, this piece of legislation passed in 1973 would in most cases be unnecessary.

"The Attorney General recognizes that this particular law is democracy at work," Durkin said Monday at a Sunshine Law workshop in Jackson.

"This is why we send our young men and women off to battle, because they're fighting for our freedom. This type of freedom is the opportunity to be self-governed."

Durkin, who serves as public education director for the Missouri Attorney General's office, led two one-hour workshops at the Cape Girardeau County on how government officials can better conduct business with openness and transparency. About 75 board members, county commissioners, law enforcement and others from the area attended the training.

The Jackson workshop is part of a statewide effort to educate the public about the state's open meetings and open record law. Durkin's effort began soon after he assumed his current role in January.

A former Missouri Senate administrative assistant and high school teacher, Durkin hopes to visit all 114 Missouri counties by National Sunshine Week in March 2010.

"When the Attorney General came into office, he wanted to send a teacher, not a lawyer, to speak on this issue," Durkin said. "This issue comes closer to an art than science. If I could teach 'The Scarlet Letter' to teenagers, he thought I could do this."

Throughout his presentation Durkin touched on who is subjected to the Sunshine Law, what are reasonable fees for copying public records, what constitutes a public meeting and what should be included on an agenda.

Durkin was asked during his presentation when a meeting can be considered closed. To that end, Durkin said there are 23 provisions in the law that support closed meetings.

Those include leasing, purchase or sale of real estate, hiring, firing, disciplining or promotion of personnel, the state militia or National Guard, software codes for electronic data processing and documents, and scholastic probation, expulsion or graduation of identifiable individuals.

"When it doubt, it's open," Durkin said. "The policy of this law is to consider openness first and strictly look for an opportunity to keep it confidential."

Betty Brooks, secretary of the Cape Girardeau County community sewer District 1 board, was among those who attended the workshop. She said the workshop was informative and helpful in how her board conducts everyday business.

She said that while the board already has Sunshine Law bylaws in place they will consider instituting a resolution stating their willingness to comply with the legislation.

"What I learned makes me and others more aware of this law," Brooks said. "We understand the importance of an open meeting and this workshop reiterated that."

Durkin said the Watergate scandal first sparked his interest in the open records and meetings law. Former president Richard Nixon resigned his position as president in 1974 after he and some of his staff admitted to covering up the break-in of the Watergate office.

"This legislation was instituted not because of the break-in but because of the cover-up," Durkin said. "The response by our General Assembly was 'this isn't going to happen in our state.'"

Durkin said the Attorney General's office's goal is to educate public bodies on the issue, such as what's being held throughout the state. However, he said prosecution may be necessary.

Prosecution for non-compliance can be either $1,000 and a charge of a civil offense or, for a more serious violation, $5,000 and attorney's fees.

"It is our policy and belief that it is far better to educate than litigate," Durkin said. "But when our good nature is pushed too far we're capable of prosecuting."

For more information on the Sunshine Law, call 573-751-8844 or visit ago.mo.gov/sunshine law/.

bblackwell@semissourian.com

388-3628

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