Sunday, March 20, 2011
There have been times in recent years when the Sunshine Law, the name for the open records law in Missouri, has been used purely for political purposes. At both the state and local levels, the Sunshine Law has been used irresponsibly by a few politicians and some media to make life difficult for political foes, usually by skewing context. That's unfortunate.
The intent of the law, the way we view it, is to keep government information available to the public. This newspaper has used the Sunshine Law and the national Freedom of Information Act to bring many important stories to our readers.
If not for FOIA, Cynthia Herath might never have received medical records from the United States Veterans Administration, and finally answers, regarding her daughter's death. If not for freedom of information, we might never have been able to tell the story of Joshua Kezer and the reasons why he was cleared of a crime for which he spent years in prison. Without the Sunshine Law, Weaver Dickerson, found to have been convicted of a felony of more than $100,000 in bad checks in past ventures, might still be planning to use tax dollars to support a new development in downtown Cape Girardeau.
The Southeast Missourian is working on several projects right now that would not be possible without protection from FOIA and the Sunshine Law. Last week alone, the newspaper submitted 11 Sunshine or FOIA requests to public agencies or bodies in Missouri and Illinois. In one case, a reporter had to climb the chain of command after an official refused to release basic crime incident reports. In the other cases, some government bodies are responding quickly. Others are not.
Without freedom of information, we couldn't analyze public spending. Without the Sunshine Law, boards and commissions wouldn't have to tell the public when they're meeting. They wouldn't have to make known their votes, discuss topics in the open. Police wouldn't have to say why they arrested a person.
The laws governing the openness of public records and meetings are an important part of the foundation of having a free society. It seems logical that politicians would want their decisions known, and many of them do. For the most part, we have politicians locally who have nothing to hide; but there are exceptions. There's no doubt the law, like so many others, can be abused. But on the whole, the laws help keep politicians and bureaucrats in check. Today marks the last day of Sunshine Week, a period where some attention has been placed on government openness.
We commemorate this week as well, knowing you, the reader, have responded so strongly to many of the important stories that would not have been possible without letting the sunshine in.