Sunday, November 18, 2007

It's time for a stronger Sunshine Law

It's time to obliterate two of the myths that have surrounded the Sunshine Law since its inception:

1. The only people who benefit from the law are the media.

2. Elected officials should not have to pay for violating the law if they so unwillingly.

Let's deal with the first myth. While it is true that the media use the Sunshine Law more frequently than the general public, let us remember that the media is serving as the public's representative, asking questions that the public usually does not have the time or access to ask. That being said, I have run into numerous occasions when taxpayers have attempted to obtain information from the government, whether it be budget documents, salary and benefits for employees, etc., and have run into roadblocks. As long as elected and appointed officials know they have nothing to fear if they violate the law, they will continue to do so to keep the public from potentially embarrassing or even incriminating information. And in some cases, it has nothing to do with either, but is simply because the people who are supposedly there to serve the taxpayers, are too lazy.

As for the second reason, as Springfield News-Leader Editorial Page Editor Tony Messenger notes in a column today, as he suggests that the General Assembly put some teeth into the Sunshine Law:

First, they'll get rid of the burden of proof that makes violations of the Sunshine Law provable only if lawmakers "knowingly" break the law. Media organizations have pushed for years to lower that standard so that ignorance of the law is no defense. It would be awfully tough in Missouri right now to believe lawmakers in this state are ignorant of the law.

One of the conceits that a wide majority of our elected officials seems to hold is that they should be the final arbiters of what information the public gets to know. It is time to develop a Sunshine Law that truly sheds light on the way the public's business is conducted.

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