Public entities are subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which means meetings by public bodies must be open, and their records must be available to the people.
The law is not new but it is new to many who serve on public, tax-supported boards and commissions. Public officials come and go and it is important that all the sitting officials are aware of the law. It is the responsibility of the attorney for these boards to inform any new members of the Sunshine Law. Unfortunately, many public officials are never informed of the law, and there are attorneys who are not familiar with the open meetings, open records law.
There are exceptions when a public body can meet privately — such as when matters to be discussed concern personnel, real estate and litigation. These closed meetings usually are called executive sessions. There are a few other exceptions.
Probably one of the most common violations of the Sunshine Law is when board members get together and discuss public business in private. Under the Sunshine Law a meeting is held when a majority or a quorum of a public governmental body gathers to discuss or vote on public business. It is not unusual for a public board in an open session to vote on an issue and there is no discussion about the matter. It’s been “cut-and-dried” by board members meeting in private, prior to the public meeting. That happens quite often.
There are so many taxing districts in operation today that it is impossible for the media to attend and report on all these governmental bodies. We have fire, ambulance, water, sewer districts, and other special districts, to name the most common. All of those districts elect board members. Quite often, no citizens attend their meetings. There is little or no accountability.
Most of the board members are honest, law-abiding citizens who make sacrifices in their free time to volunteer. Many of them do not know the law.
The best policy is always to operate in the open if serving on a public board. Suspicions arise when members meet in private to discuss public business.
A public governmental body must make available for inspection and copying by the public that body’s public records.
Another Sunshine Law often violated is failure to give public notice of a meeting. Usually, a 24-hour notice is required. The agenda must be in the notice.
Every public body should have a copy of the Sunshine Law. Every attorney for a public board should know the law and advise his or her clients. Open government is good government.