The Sunshine Law is important.
Not just for the media and our requests for files and records, but most importantly, for the public and their right to access records as well. Being informed about government proceedings and communications is a right determined by law.
In Missouri, the Sunshine Law was first introduced in 1973, and upon passage, Missouri stepped up as one of the first states to adopt regulations to help ensure government transparency and fairness.
The Sunshine Law bill is neatly provided in a small book that explains the rules and regulations on how a government agency is to behave in response to public requests for records.
The Missouri Sunshine Law, §610.011, RSMo, 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. Sections 610.010 to 610.200 shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy.”
However, not all governmental agencies comply with these rules.
In addition, other elected officials or agency directors may refuse record requests because they hold a biased, self-serving interpretation of the law.
Ironically, last week as the City of Ava was refusing to provide the revised weapons ordinance to the Douglas County Herald, the Missouri House was working hard to create a caveat to the Sunshine Law and establish a new rule expanding a legislator’s power to keep records shielded from requests.
Unfortunately, it appears the intent of the Sunshine Law has become tainted since its inception in Missouri in 1973. Today, as more Sunshine Law disputes are filed in the courts, this ongoing battle seems to give legislators and government agencies the latitude to push the envelope and be less transparent. Officials are more prone to hide rather than share, as court cases take a long time to settle and are costly to adjudicate. Most individuals don’t have the time or funds to sue over a Sunshine Law violation.
Nonetheless, this attitude of non-compliance and ongoing refusal to comply with Sunshine Law standards is spending taxpayer money unnecessarily. Headlines attest to the fact Sunshine Law requests continue to be a battleground as government agencies are more prone to fight requests rather than comply.
Just recently, a court case levied against the Cole County Prosecuting Attorney upheld findings that the prosecutor was guilty of engaging in multiple Sunshine Law violations. According to news reports, this case alone is costing taxpayers approximately $36,000 in fines and fees. The court also levied a civil penalty against the Cole County Prosecuting Attorney, a fine totaling $12,100. This Cole County court case is just one example.
The court also has the discretion to hold a guilty party responsible for court costs as well as attorney fees.
Penalties for violating the Sunshine Law vary greatly, as fines are decided by the courts and based on the degree of harm and whether or not denial to records was intentional or a misinterpretation of the law.
The Missouri Attorney General office oversees the printing and distribution of the Sunshine Law book. The book is small in size as it has a soft-bound cover measuring 8 inches tall and 5 inches wide, with only 68 pages of text. It’s an easy read. The book offers explicit details about the Sunshine Law, but also offers a protocol page on how to request records, another section explains various court case findings about the law, and there is a Frequently Asked Questions section which clarifies specific points of interest.
The Freedom of Information Act, which is the federal government’s public information law, is also explained.
For those who may interested in a copy, contact the Office of the Missouri Attorney General, P. O. Box 899, Jefferson City, MO 65102 or go to www.ago.mo.gov
Perhaps, the City of Ava needs a copy as well.