Group forms to promote open government
COLUMBIA ‹ Missouri’s sunshine law gives citizens access to government records and meetings. Not everybody who depends upon the sunshine law works for a newspaper.
Mike Wood is one of those people. He’s the director of governmental relations for the Missouri State Teachers Association. Part of his job is to gather public financial information, including salary and budget numbers, from school districts throughout the state.
It’s refreshing when getting those public records doesn’t become an issue, Wood told a gathering at the Reynolds Journalism Institute on Thursday. But his office staff spends a lot of time calling school districts that do not respond to requests for copies of their budgets.
Wood was one of the speakers at the kickoff reception and program of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition held at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.
The Sunshine Coalition’s mission is to bring together citizens and organizations from around the state who are interested in openness in government at all levels, from local fire and ambulance districts up through the general assembly and Governor’s Office.
The Coalition’s president, Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, welcomed guests and introduced speakers. About 50 people from around the state attended.
Attorney General Chris Koster told the group he has hired a full-time staff member, Tom Durkin, whose job is to educate government officials about the sunshine law. Durkin, who attended Thursday’s program, will travel around the state providing training to city, county and state officials.
Koster said he also has designated several members of his staff to handle sunshine law inquiries, complaints and mediation.
Most violations of the sunshine law occur because of ignorance of the law on the part of public officials, Koster said. While mediation of disputes is the desired outcome, his office will prosecute offenders of the sunshine law, he said.
Anyone who would like to get sunshine law information or schedule a local seminar can contact the Attorney General’s Office at (573) 751-8844 or ago.mo.gov.
Charles Davis also spoke briefly at the March 12 meeting. He is the director of the National Freedom of Information Center, which is based down the hall from where Thursday’s meeting was held.
Openness in government is a bipartisan value, Davis said.
"This coalition is for everyone," he said. "The bigger the tent, the better the coalition."
Forming the open government coalition brought Missouri into the vast majority of states that have such groups. Davis has worked with most of the open government organizations around the country.
Texas, which has had an open government group for many years, is a great example, Davis said. Public officials in Texas "get it," when it comes to open government. That is a result of educating the public by holding meetings in towns all over the state, he said.
By informing citizens about their rights to access government records and meetings, this coalition can build political strength for openness, Davis said.
In the closing minutes of the kickoff meeting, members of the audience offered suggestions for what the Sunshine Coalition should do. They suggested:
€ Continue to press the legislature for improvements to the sunshine law.
€ Speak with local civic organizations about the sunshine law and find out what questions they have about it.
€ Form regional groups to more efficiently spread the word and provide training about openness.
€ Assess all of the governmental bodies in each county to see where we stand on openness and understanding of the sunshine law.
€ Gather positive examples of compliance with the sunshine law.
€ Partner with MU Extension to set up sunshine law programs around the state.
€ Learn more about openness programs in states like Texas.
All Missouri citizens who are interested in government openness are invited to join the Sunshine Coalition. Dues are $25. Learn more about it at missourisunshine.org.
Brenda Jones, St. Louis, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, gives a business card to Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center, after the March 12 Sunshine Coalition program in Columbia. Jones is a member of the board of directors of the Missouri Sunshine Law Coalition. Davis was one of the speakers at the program.