What has been apparent in every version of the Sunshine Law that has been approved is that no one is looking out for the interest of the average citizen. The law is written in such a way that any politician can simply claim he did not understand the law and did not mean to violate it. By doing that, he can avoid the penalties (which aren't that much anyway) and can also avoid paying the legal costs of those who challenge him in court:
Chapter 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes opens with a strong statement in favor of public access. "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."
The law allows any taxpayer, citizen, aggrieved person, county prosecutor or the attorney general to go to court to enforce the law.
But proving a violation is difficult and the penalties are so small that private enforcement lawsuits are rare. And unless the case proves a "knowing" or "purposeful" violation, the penalty does not include the costs of bringing the lawsuit.
"Enforcement of this law for the average citizen is next to impossible," said Jean Maneke, attorney for the press association.
It is time for the legislature to re-examine the Open Meetings Law and make the penalties severe enough that politicians will think twice, and maybe even three times, before going into a closed session. Until that happens, we will continue to have our elected officials going into a closed meetings on any flimsy pretext to avoid public scrutiny of their actions.
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