This year marks the 40th anniversary of Missouri’s first Sunshine Law bill passed by the Missouri General Assembly.
The law sets out the legal requirements for notices of public meetings, ensures public access to government records and carves out the specific instances when a meeting, record or vote may be closed.
Missouri’s commitment to openness is government is unequivocal. The law clearly states that the public policy of the state is that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.
But as straightforward as that edict is, enforcing the Sunshine Law has always been a challenge.
There have been sporadic attempts to change that since it was first signed by then-Gov. Kit Bond in 1973 but most of the efforts to put some real teeth into the bill for those who violate the law have died in the Legislature.
Forty years after the law was passed, and despite its clear public policy pronouncement, it is an uphill climb to prove a Sunshine Law violation.
Without question it is a complicated and expensive process because of the current burden of proof required and because it typically involves filing a lawsuit which is often cost-prohibitive for the average citizen.
Or, as Jean Maneke, an attorney and Sunshine Law advocate, put it: The bottom line is that the public body has the power and the citizen who tries to get enforcement of the Sunshine Law has no power — and usually no money to pay for a lawyer or a lawsuit. That’s why the majority of Sunshine Law violations are never pursued.
But that could change under a bill introduced this year by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia. Under his proposal, to make enforcement easier, government agencies or boards that violate the Sunshine Law would be assessed a mandatory fine of $100 rather than a discretionary fine of as much as $1,000.
When a “knowing” violation is proved, the bill awards attorney fees to the party bringing the enforcement lawsuit. Under current law, a judge is allowed to award attorney fees but not required to do so.
Schaefer’s bill does a number of other things to promote openness in government including requiring public meeting notices to be posted 48 hours in advance, rather than the current 24-hour requirement. It also provides that anyone could request personal notices of all meetings of a body — not just reporters.
The changes in Schaefer’s bill are needed and would serve to further promote openness and transparency in government.
Predictably, there is opposition to the bill. The Missouri Municipal League and Missouri Association of Counties have expressed concerns over the earlier notice requirement and the changes in the penalties for unwitting violations.
The Legislature should commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Sunshine Law and demonstrate its commitment to openness in government by passing Schaefer’s bill.