Sunshine Week highlights shortcomings of state law

By Mike Anthony

This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative designed to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.

To kick off Sunshine Week, a report issued Monday by Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich found state and local governing bodies routinely violate the state’s Open Meetings and Records Law, also called the Sunshine Law, which calls for open, transparent government.

Schweich’s report summarizes Sunshine Law-related findings and recommendations contained in the nearly 300 reports released by the state auditor’s office from January 2010 to December 2011. Nearly 20 percent of these reports contained one or more Sunshine Law violations, according to Schweich.

We wish we could say we were surprised by Schweich’s findings, but we’re not. We routinely question what we consider a lack of compliance with the Sunshine Law by some local governments and their officials.

In fact, we’ve written columns within the past month questioning compliance with the Sunshine Law by some Sunset Hills elected officials and the Crestwood city administrator.

On more than one occasion, we’ve put our money where our mouth is by filing suit against governmental entities regarding their compliance with the Sunshine Law.

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.

Schweich’s report contains numerous recommendations on how governing bodies can improve compliance with the Sunshine Law. That’s all well and good, but as we’ve written on many occasions over the years, much of the lack of transparency in state and local governing bodies is a direct result of the inherent weakness of this state’s Sunshine Law.

For years, we’ve urged our state legislators to adopt some of the provisions contained in the Illinois Meetings Act, including requiring governing bodies to make and maintain either audio or video recordings of all closed sessions and requiring all votes of a governing body be taken in open session.

Our legislators have plenty to say about the Sunshine Law when they’re seeking re-election. But their failure to adopt any meaningful reforms to improve transparency proves they’re more interested in retaining office than enhancing the public’s right to know.