Three new Sunshine Heroes will be honored this month as advocates continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Missouri’s landmark Sunshine Law.
The Missouri Sunshine Coalition plans a Sept. 23 awards presentation for its 2023 Sunshine Heroes: Tony Messenger, columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Diann Valenti, St. Louis County clerk and St. Louis County Council administrative director; and David Adam, editor of the Muddy River News, a news organization based in Quincy, Il., and serving 10 counties in Missouri and Illinois.
“The Sunshine Law provides for access to the meetings and records of public governmental bodies, but transparency is not something that occurs in a vacuum or is automatic,” said coalition Executive Director Dennis Ellsworth.
“Time has shown that for the public to fully benefit from the Sunshine Law, individual citizens and government officials must act to support and preserve its protections, ensure they are broadly understood, and work in partnership to honor the law’s requirement that it be ‘liberally’ interpreted to promote government openness.”
The Sunshine Hero awards recognize those who have distinguished themselves in these areas. Nominees were sought from private citizens, the legal profession, elected officials, government employees, the news media and others. The awards will be presented at the annual Missouri Press Association meeting in St. Louis.
“This group of honorees includes multiple individuals nominated by members of the public who observed their good works,” Ellsworth said. “This is a high honor when you consider the importance of these efforts. Each winner is highly deserving of recognition.”
This year’s honorees are:
Messenger began his career at a small weekly newspaper in Colorado and has worked at weeklies, dailies and magazines in Colorado, Arizona, Nebraska, South Dakota and Missouri. He joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2008 as a capital correspondent and political columnist in Jefferson City. He was named editorial page editor in 2012 and metro columnist in 2016.
Throughout his time with the Post-Dispatch, Messenger has written with compassion and understanding about the challenges for poor and marginalized Missourians. He also consistently has championed the Sunshine Law and provided expert interpretation of the protections it affords citizens from all walks of life who seek access to the records and policy deliberations of public governmental bodies.
Messenger previously has been recognized with the Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership from the American Society of News Editors and the Walker Stone editorial writing award from the Scripps Howard Foundation, both in 2014; as a Pulitzer Prize finalist (for editorials on Ferguson, Mo.) and recipient of the Sigma Delta Chi award for best editorials of the year from the Society of Professional Journalists, both in 2015; with the Missouri Honor Medal, the highest award presented by the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in 2016; and as winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for columns exposing the injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail.
Before entering public governmental service, Valenti had previous experience for many years as a legal assistant and as office administrator for a nonprofit. She was named executive assistant to St. Louis County Council member Kevin O’Leary in 2015 and named chief deputy clerk for St. Louis County in 2017. Then two years later she assumed an acting role with multiple responsibilities: county clerk for St. Louis County, administrative director for the St. Louis County Council, and custodian of records for the County Council and County Clerk offices. The next year, in 2020, she was appointed to these positions on a permanent basis.
Compliance with the Sunshine Law is just one of Valenti’s responsibilities. However, close observers of St. Louis County government and requesters of records report she has had a significant positive impact in improving public access to records and meetings. The County Council has overcome a previous poor reputation and become one of the most responsive government entities in the St. Louis area when it comes to the Sunshine Law.
Several advances have been noted. These include prompt turnaround on Sunshine Law records requests without unnecessary hurdles or delays. Further, Valenti led an effort to digitize the council’s business items by implementing a software program that provides a platform for the public to access agendas, meeting notices and journals. This is a great improvement over requiring those interested to sort through a mass of paper documents or to scroll through numerous digital files. County Council meetings also are accessible via live streaming on the Internet. Production values are good for the viewer: close-ups are provided of speakers, including citizens addressing the council. Each council meeting video is cataloged for ease of searching.
Adam is editor of the Muddy River News, a multiplatform local news outlet serving Hannibal, Mo., Quincy, Il., and the surrounding 10 counties. Adam previously worked as a writer, page designer and editor at the Quincy Herald-Whig for 34 years. He then spent two years in marketing at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo., before joining the News for its launch in April 2021.
In spring 2023, Adam partnered with a concerned parent after hearing reports of low morale among high school football players and their parents in the Palmyra (Mo.) School District. The News, led by Adam, and the parent used the Sunshine Law to request copies of three years of electronic communications made on school-issued electronic devices. In a victory for transparency and timely discovery, the district superintendent readily complied.
As the resulting story in the News documented — accompanied by transcribed text messages — the electronic communications between high school football coaches and an administrator revealed homophobic, sexist and racist content directed at both students and other faculty members. Repercussions were swift. Three coaches and one administrator were placed on leave after the texts were presented to school officials. Two coaches and the administrator resigned effective immediately. The head football coach already was leaving the district, having submitted his resignation in November following disciplinary action during the football season. He had taken another coaching job, but resigned that position as well after the News published its story.