Wanted: Rays of Openness - The Missourian: Opinion

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Wanted: Rays of Openness

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Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 6:32 pm

There are so many “weeks” to recognize just about everything under the sun that often these observances lose their significance. This is Sunshine Week and its significance is emphasized by newspapers.

Many states have Sunshine Laws that require public bodies to operate in the open — their meetings and records are subject to public scrutiny. Newspapers believe strongly in these laws since the public has a right to know what public officials and agencies are doing, especially since tax dollars are involved. Sad to say most of these laws lack strong teeth when it comes to penalties for violations. The gray areas in these laws often prevent full openness and disclosure in some instances.

From experience we know that the old saying of “the public won’t understand” has been used by some public officials as a defense for not wanting to embrace openness on particular issues. That’s a flimsy defense and is coated in ignorance and arrogance.

Also experience tells us that openness builds public trust, something that’s needed more today than perhaps ever before. An example is that the Franklin County Commission openly disclosed that its paving program has had problems and work had to be redone. The county has said it will disclose how much money the work that had to be redone cost taxpayers. The commission has taken steps to see it doesn’t happen again. It admitted mistakes were made.

A disturbing fact is that many attorneys lack specific knowledge about the Sunshine Law and they don’t inform the public bodies they represent about it. That has resulted in violations. When he was attorney general, Gov. Jay Nixon used to hold meetings around the state to explain the law to public officials. That is an excellent program.

Community newspapers, and larger ones, are watchdogs as to compliance with the Sunshine Law. Why? Their role is to keep their readers informed, especially how the public bodies spend their taxpayer dollars. The newspapers’ Missouri Press Association has an attorney who is an expert in the Sunshine Law. She is available on a regular basis to answer questions as to specific Sunshine Law provisions.

The awareness of the law is higher today than perhaps ever before. A problem is public officials change and awareness efforts must be continuous.

As we mentioned, openness builds trust and an informed public results in improved government and operations by all public bodies.