The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

February 5, 2013

Our View: It’s the people’s law

— While it’s a law journalists often cite as part of their work, Missouri’s Sunshine Law should more accurately be called the people’s law.

The unfortunate reality is that the average Joe or Jane on the street is often given short shrift when it comes to successfully making open-record requests.

Some changes are being suggested in this legislative session that could fix that dismissive attitude. Incidentally, those changes are being posed during the 40th anniversary of Missouri’s open records and meetings law.

Under Sen. Kurt Schaefer’s bill, city councils, county commissions, school boards and other government agencies would have to notify the public 48 hours before a meeting — instead of the current 24 hours.

His bill also proposes that government bodies could no longer go behind closed doors to discuss a “legal” matter unless there truly was one. If his bill passes, evidence that a lawsuit has been filed or is going to be filed must be presented.

And he suggests adding a government agency’s leases, subleases and rental agreements to the list of public records that are open to the public’s review, as well as agreements for the rental, construction or renovation of a building.

The presumption should always be that government meetings and documents are open to the public. Schaefer, in an interview with The Jefferson City News Tribune:

“One of the biggest changes is, right now if there is a violation of the Sunshine Law,” Schaefer said, “the burden is on the citizen to go in and establish that there has been a violation.

“This shifts that burden and creates a presumption that meetings are open, and the governmental entity has the burden to establish that the meeting or record was closed (correctly).”

Missouri’s Sunshine Law was introduced seven years after the Freedom of Information Act was passed in Congress in response to the Watergate scandal. In 1973, RSMO Chapter 610 was signed into the Missouri Constitution making the state one of the earliest advocates of the open records act.

The law was written for the public. Let’s make sure the people are able to use it. Let your legislators know you want more openness in government meetings and records.

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