One method public officials have used over the years to diffuse criticism of the Sunshine Law is to make it appear as if the only ones who are complaining about it are the media. And let's face it, the media has not done a good job of promoting the real reason this issue is so important- when decisions are made illegally behind closed doors, it is the public which suffers.
Over the years, I have run into countless instances of people who have run into roadblocks from public bodies when they try to get their hands on information which is clearly public information. Officials use a variation of their media tactics. Instead of a prying media, it is just "troublemakers" who are taking up too much time and money.
But now, thanks to Governor Matt Blunt's incredible statement that e-mails are not public documents (a belief which differs from his own words of a few years earlier), plus the deliberations of the body attempting to find candidates for a Supreme Court vacancy, and the Missouri Ethics Commission's behind-closed-doors decision to require candidates to return excess campaign contributions, the Sunshine Law is once again a major issue in Missouri politics.
The situation also has a local parallel in the clearly illegal actions of the Missouri Southern State University Board of Governors to secretly appoint a search committee to find a new university president.
An editorial in today's Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian spells out the problem:
Every public official -- and every voter and taxpayer as well -- needs to again read the opening of the Sunshine Law:
"It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public government bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law. Sections 610.010 and 610.200 shall be liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy."
Public officials who look for ways to sidestep that admonition are not "public" servants. They are merely preserving their "private" interests while pretending to obey the law.
It is hard to beat that assessment and I don't even intend to try.
But it is time to make the Sunahine Law more than just a policy. The first place to look, as I have written before, is in the punishments for violating the law. Right now there are none. A public official can receive a fine, but only if it can be proven that the official "knowingly" violated the law, which is almost impossible to prove. If a person is elected or appointed to a public body, that person needs to know the law, and needs to be ready to ask each time the idea of a closed session is brought up- is this legal?
Also, though this will probably never happen, officials need to stop looking for reasons to take their deliberations behind closed doors. Just because it is legal to do so does not make it the right decision.
Open deliberations would benefit most public officials...and they would benefit all citizens. Hopefully, this increased attention to the Sunshine Law will bring about some much needed change.