Today kicks off the annual observance of Sunshine Week, a time when we celebrate our state’s open-records and open-meetings laws and their objective to help us maintain government transparency.
The Sunshine Law in Missouri is a collection of state statutes that outline the types of governmental bodies that must be open to the public, and which types of information they must make public. Locally, bodies such as our city councils, county commissions and school boards are subject to the Sunshine Law, and any member of the public has the right to request information from them.
It’s because of the Sunshine Law that we can know how much we pay for elected officials’ salaries, how individual members of public bodies vote on issues and whether taxes on a specific property are being paid. It’s because of the Sunshine Law that we can go to government meetings, observe how they’re conducted and watch taxpayer-funded business taking place in real time. Open government is good government; decisions in a democracy should not be made in secret.
But this week is also a reminder that we must keep constant vigilance to ensure that these laws are preserved, followed and upheld, not weakened or diminished. There are always threats to your right to an open government. Here are just a few that have surfaced in Missouri in the past few weeks:
• A bill passed by the Missouri House would put a pause on open-records requests when public agencies are closed, which The Associated Press reported is being suggested as an attempt to ease pressure on governments during emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. But the measure also would cover state lawmakers who close their offices for most of the year while the Legislature is not in session. That could mean Sunshine Law requests are ignored for months.
• Governors, public health directors and committees advising them have been holding key discussions behind closed doors, including debates about who should be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and how best to distribute them. A review by The Associated Press found that advisory committees created to help determine how to prioritize limited doses have held closed meetings in at least 13 states, including Missouri. The lack of transparency raises the risk that some decisions will be grounded in politics rather than public health and that well-connected industries could receive special treatment while the concerns of marginalized groups are ignored.
• More public bodies than ever are livestreaming their meetings because of safety concerns amid the pandemic. But in many cases, it has become harder for people who are watching from a computer, TV or smartphone to actually talk with their elected officials. An Associated Press survey of state legislative bodies found that most no longer allow people inside their chambers to observe. And at many local meetings convened remotely, the only avenue for public input is a written comment.
This week, because open government is good government, let’s commit to keeping it that way in Missouri.