Violations of Sunshine Law commonplace, report finds

‘Call the Tune’ by Mike Anthony

By Mike Anthony

State and local governing bodies routinely violate the Missouri Open Meetings and Records Act, also called the Sunshine Law, according to a recent report issued by State Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Galloway’s report, compiled from audits performed from January 2014 to June 2015, identified the five most common Sunshine Law violations:

• Closed-meeting topics — Some issues discussed in closed meetings were not allowed by law.

• Reasons for closed meetings — The reasons for closing a meeting and related votes were not adequately documented.

• Meeting minutes — Minutes were not prepared for open meetings.

• Public information policy — Policies were not in place to provide the public with access to documents and/or rates charged for providing information were inconsistent.

• Review of minutes — Meeting minutes were not always approved in a timely manner.

We’re not surprised. Galloway’s predecessor, the late Tom Schweich, issued reports in 2012 and 2014 with similar findings. Needless to say, Sunshine Law compliance continues to be an issue statewide.

Unfortunately, Missouri’s Sunshine Law — supposedly designed to ensure both transparency and accountability in government — is one of the weakest in the nation.

To really put some teeth in the law, we believe governmental bodies should be required to make a verbatim record — audio or video — of any closed session and take minutes of the meeting. We don’t buy opponents’ arguments that such recordings would be costly or inhibit frank discussion, as all public bodies meeting behind closed doors in Illinois are required by state law to make a verbatim recording of their proceedings.

Such audio and video recordings are not public records open to public inspection, but could be examined privately by a judge in a civil action to determine if there has been a violation of the law.

Most of the governing bodies we cover go above and beyond in adhering to the Sunshine Law and embracing transparency, realizing that an informed citizenry is essential for democracy to work.

That said, we will continue to keep a close eye on the reasons cited by local public bodies for meeting in closed session — particularly those entities that routinely meet behind closed doors, yet never take any votes during those closed sessions.