Celebrate Sunshine Week

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This week, news media organizations, civic groups, schools and individuals interested in the public's right to know will join together to celebrate Sunshine Week, an event designed to "promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information." Barry Countians can be a part of Sunshine Week by engaging in discussions about the importance of open government. These discussions can take place in public forums, coffee shops, classrooms or at the family dinner table. As we take time to recognize the importance of open government, I would like to offer some information about Missouri's Sunshine Law.

The Missouri Sunshine Law requires meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies to be open to the public. A public governmental body is permitted, but not required, to close meetings, records and votes when they relate to the following topics: legal actions, cause of action or litigation; leasing, purchasing or sale of real estate where public knowledge might adversely affect the amount paid in the transaction; hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting a particular employee; welfare cases of identifiable individuals; software codes for electronic data processing; individually identifiable personnel records; and records that are protected from disclosure by other laws. Votes, minutes and settlement agreements must be opened to the public on final disposition, unless ordered closed by a court.

Any time a governmental body votes to meet in closed session, members must cite in open session a specific statute allowing the closure. Only the topic cited for closing the meeting can be discussed during the closed session, and the governmental body must close only that portion of the facility necessary for its members to conduct the closed meeting, allowing space for the public to remain and attend any later open session.

Public meetings, including meetings conducted by telephone or electronic means, must be held at reasonably convenient times and must be accessible to the public. Governmental bodies are required to give at least 24 hours notice before a meeting. This excludes weekends and holidays. Notices must be prominently posted in the public body's principal office or at the meeting location. Notices must include: the time, date and place of the meeting; a tentative agenda of the open meeting; and whether the meeting is open or closed to the public. If exceptional circumstances prevent 24-hour prior notice or the meeting from being held at a convenient time and place reasonably accessible to the public, the reason should be stated in the meeting minutes.

Records of public governmental bodies are to be open and available to the public for inspection and copying. The governmental body can charge a reasonable fee for providing access to or copies of public records. The fee cannot exceed the actual cost of the document search and duplication. Governmental bodies must appoint a custodian for the records. Requests for access to public records must be acted on no later than the end of the third business day following the date the request is received by the custodian. If access is denied, the custodian must explain in writing why the request was denied and the statute that authorizes the denial. If only part of a record may be closed to review, the remainder of the record must be made available.

We hope that all governmental bodies in Barry County recognize the importance of open records and join citizens in celebrating Sunshine Week. Hopefully, the information above will help clarify some questions regarding Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Lindsay Reed