Most every politician supports the concept of open, transparent government. We are, after all, as President Lincoln observed, a government of, by and for the people.
It’s when the concepts of open government are put into practice that politicians get a little squeamish.
The tension between rhetoric and reality with respect to openness in government were on display this week as state and local politicians weighed in on an expanded and more workable version of our state’s open meetings and open records law commonly referred to as the Sunshine Law.
Missouri’s Sunshine Law is the embodiment of our state’s commitment to openness in government. That commitment 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.
Yet state and local governments routinely violate the law according to a report issued by State Auditor Tom Schweich last year. Despite this frequency, few Sunshine Law violations are ever pursued in court because the law is full of holes, and has no teeth. The law is a weak parody of its original intent. It screams transparency but is largely unenforceable in practice.
State lawmakers are trying to change that. On Thursday, by wide margins, the Missouri House and Senate passed updated and expanded versions of the Sunshine Law. Good for them for recognizing its deficiencies and trying to make it better.
The Senate version, introduced by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, would make it easier to prove violations but would also reduce the fine for violating the law from up to $1,000 to $100.
Under current law, a government official can’t be found guilty of violating the law unless it can be proved he “knowingly” broke the law. That is a difficult, if not impossible, legal standard to prove which is one reason why so few cases are pursued.
Schaefer’s bill removes the word “knowingly” and also shifts the burden to prove a violation from the citizen or outside group to the governmental body.
Those changes didn’t sit too well with members of the Franklin County Commission who discussed the proposed Sunshine Law changes Wednesday in a work session.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer called Schaefer’s bill “a terrible piece of legislation” and vowed to fight to defeat it. Newly elected First District County Commissioner Tim Brinker said shifting the burden of proof to the elected official “doesn’t make any sense.” He argued it could be costly for governmental entities to defend themselves against allegations of Sunshine Law violations.
The commissioners’ opposition to a more workable Sunshine Law is no doubt influenced by the recent actions of a group of critics who have challenged them at every turn. The commissioners have been besieged by capricious record requests and have been the target of frivolous lawsuits and accused of Sunshine Law violation allegations that were never substantiated. They don’t want to make it easier for anyone to use the law to harass them.
They also feel that any change to the Sunshine Law should include a clarification with respect to the provisions governing informal meetings between commissioners in a “ministerial” capacity to give them some guidance and protection.
We respect those positions. But the commissioners’ reaction to the proposed changes in the Senate bill are way overblown.
Griesheimer has long held the view that unintentional or accidental violations of the Sunshine Law, especially those made by part-time, volunteer public officials, shouldn’t be subject to fines or pursued aggressively. His argument is that because they are donating their time, volunteers like those serving on rural ambulance and fire district boards should be given some slack.
We would argue that paying a fine of $100 for violating the law is akin to paying a traffic ticket and does provide the requisite slack. By keeping the fine low, the law creates an incentive to avoid litigation and the potential of a public official being asked to pay attorney fees.
We all have a right to know what our government officials and agencies are doing. Sunshine Laws keep government and public officials honest.
You don’t have to look too far to see some glaring examples of government corruption. The misuse of taxpayer funds in the St. Clair Fire Protection District should remind us of the very real potential for corruption by a public official.
Like all politicians, our commissioners stressed they are for open, transparent government — of, by and for the people. But when the tire meets the road on the “for the people” part, they start to resist.