At the end of Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote government transparency and openness, here’s the good news.
The public is making more requests of its federal government than ever before, and in turn the government stepped up its responses.
But wait. According to The Associated Press, an increasing number of responses provide little in the way of information. Instead, the federal government is denying more requests than ever, citing security as the reason.
So how are we doing closer to home?
City, county and school district boards, university boards, courts, police and fire departments are among those government bodies holding records often needed by the public.
In our view, a simple request is all it should take to get a copy of most records. We don’t think Missouri’s open records/open meetings law intended for the public to have to file an open records request in order to get a copy of a traffic accident or board minutes. Yet we know it happens. In fact, some government entities now make it a matter of course to require individuals to file an open records request before they release anything to the public.
We are also troubled by public boards that routinely cite closed meetings at their end of their public agendas and list the three exemptions whereby the law will allow them to talk about public business behind closed doors. Real estate negotiations, personnel records and litigation are all allowed as closed-door subjects under the law. But the intention of the law is to specify which of those the board intends to discuss. It shouldn’t be used as a “cover all occasions” tool.
By the way, while the law says boards can meet in secret to discuss the items exempted from the law, it does not imply that they have to.
Finally, we are concerned by the costs and the difficulty that the public encounters when asking for documents that ultimately they have already paid for with their tax money. It shouldn’t take thousands of dollars and an attorney to make an open records request.
Missouri’s law says, “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.” And sections of the Sunshine Law “shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy.”
It’s a law that is supposed to be on the side of the people.
Let’s keep the doors open and the sun shining through.