Perhaps 2013 will be year for Sunshine Law reform

Prefiling of bills is under way for the Missouri General Assembly legislative session that will begin Jan. 9.

Perhaps 2013 will be the year we see some significant reform to the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also called the Sunshine Law.

It’s no secret we consider this state’s Sunshine Law to be one of the weakest in the nation.

For years, we’ve urged our state legislators to adopt some of the provisions contained in the Illinois Meetings Act, particularly the Illinois Verbatim Record Law that requires governing bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of all closed sessions.

Former Rep. Walt Bivins, R-Oakville, introduced legislation four times that sought to require a public governmental body to make and retain a verbatim audio recording of any closed meeting.

It’s too bad his legislation did not gain any traction, especially since the Illinois law has been in effect since January 2004. Lead sponsors of the Illinois measure were then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, and state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

The city of Crestwood, however, has a policy of tape recording closed sessions of the Board of Aldermen involving litigation and real-estate matters that’s older than the llinois Verbatim Record Law. It may be the only policy of its kind in Missouri.

Crestwood officials — after much consternation and hand-wringing — adopted the policy in March 2002. No problems or legal challenges ever have resulted from the taping policy.

Missouri’s Sunshine Law also could be greatly improved by eliminating closed-session votes by members of a governmental body.

We believe all votes should be taken in open session.

We certainly don’t disagree with the need for members of a governmental body to discuss specific issues — as narrowly defined by the Sunshine Law — in a closed session, we believe the public should be able to observe firsthand how their elected officials cast crucial votes.

Fortunately, most of the governing bodies we cover in south county go above and beyond in adhering to the Sunshine Law and embrace transparency, realizing an informed citizenry is essential for democracy to work.

Unfortunately, that’s not true statewide. Therefore, we urge legislators to strengthen Missouri’s Sunshine Law by requiring the audio or video recording of all closed sessions and eliminating closed session-votes.