Kim McCully-Mobley: Let the sun shine in
Last week, March 11-15, was National Sunshine Week.
What does that mean, you ask?
While most of us are ready for some spring “sunshine” in the wake of our recent wintry onslaughts amidst rainy and foggy days, this is a different type of “sunshine.”
Journalists throughout the United States are busy writing/publishing warm editorials in tribute to the observance. In another time and another life, I legitimately earned several nicknames. Some of those can’t be said here in print. Others, including “Miss Sunshine,” still stick. That’s okay by me. I learned from my heroes that good things happen with truth, transparency and open records.
I have a cache of emails about Missouri’s Open Meetings/Open Records Law and have held media ethics forums for University Extension, Ozark Press Association and the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the statute. As a former 21-plus year newspaper editor with 40-plus years of reporting under my belt, I know the importance of holding officials’ feet to the fire over open records. As journalists, we are often the eyes, ears, voices and watchdogs to the public we serve. It is not a popularity contest — nor should it ever become one.
The premise of the week is to call attention to government entities who need to make sure they keep their doors and windows open to the patrons they serve. Missouri’s Sunshine Law went on the books in 1973. It has had a few rounds of revisions since then. Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced this week he is revamping the state’s Sunshine Law Book. It will become more user friendly with the new design and format.
“Transparency is an important pillar of good governance, and the Missouri Sunshine Law is an important resource for the public and members of the media,” Schmitt said .
City councils, school boards and other entities/panels/committees formed under their umbrellas must allow the public into the meetings, must post agendas and must keep detailed minutes of all action taken during these sessions.
Those needing to go behind closed doors for such things as hiring, firing, disciplining, promoting, leasing/real estate discussions, talking about security codes or pending litigation may do so — as long as that’s all they talk about. Rest assured, if action needs to be taken, decisions must be announced, along with a vote, within a 72-hour span.
If the custodian of record fails to do this at the end of three business days, an explanation must be given and a new time/date established.
Additional items of note include:
• Closed session agenda items must be posted within 24 hours of a meeting, except in cases of extreme emergency.
• It is illegal to ask someone why he/she wants public records.
• Anyone can request records. There are sample templates for this online.
• Roll call votes must be taken to move from open session into public session.
• Those requesting records under Sunshine Law statutes or federal Freedom of Information Act requests can be charged a reasonable fee for employee time used and copying materials. Usually it is some type of minimum per page fee.
• Meeting in private with less than a quorum (majority of the panel/council or board) of the body in question does not an illegal meeting make.
• Emails regarding public business should also be sent to the custodian of records for a proper paper trail.
• The Attorney General’s office is required to investigate Sunshine Law violations.
• Only a court can impose penalties if it is found that those violations have occurred.
• Action taken during those times in question may be voided by the court, as well.
• If the purpose of such action is to purposefully circumvent the public’s right to know the information addressed, though, that becomes another story.
• Violators of the State’s Sunshine Law can be fined or jailed or both.
Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” in Leaves of Grass says “I think heroic deeds were all conceived in open air.”
I could not agree more.
Kim McCully-Mobley is a former newspaper editor in southwest Missouri. She currently teaches media writing for Aurora High School and Drury University. A longtime fan of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, she is a past president of Aurora Rotary, the Ozark Press Association and the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Lawrence County Judge Robert George once said: “She has worked on more newspapers than a potty-training puppy.” Her stints include: The Chart at MSSU, The Aurora Advertiser, the Marionville Free Press, the Lawrence County Record and The Monett Times. She still freelances for several area publications and serves as the Marketing Chair for Aurora’s GRO 2.0 Program.