Although there’s been some improvement since his last audit, State Auditor Tom Schweich said Tuesday that government agencies still need to do more work following the Missouri’s "Sunshine Law."
Based on a review of the nearly 300 audits Schweich’s office performed over a two-year period – from Jan. 1, 2012-Dec. 31, 2013 – Schweich said 15 percent found violations of the Open Meetings/Open Records law, compared with 19 percent in the previous two years.
"It’s not a statistically iron-clad number," he acknowledged in an interview. "It looks like Sunshine Law compliance is improving."
Overall, he said, the three "largest problems" his auditors found were:
- Failure to document a reason for closing a meeting.
- Closed session discussions that involved subjects other than the ones listed as the reasons for having a closed session, or, he said, "Things that should have been discussed in open session being discussed in closed session."
- Improper minutes – or no minutes- being kept of closed meetings, which he said was "much less common."
In some cases, minutes that were kept didn’t include "sufficient detail" of what happened during a meeting.
Auditors also found some government agencies or local governments didn’t have "adequate" policies and procedures for keeping public records and giving people access to them.
And some didn’t prepare, post or retain agendas as the law requires.
Schweich said his office takes compliance with the law very seriously.
"We have a grading system" with our audits, he said, "and if you don’t comply with the Sunshine Law, that hurts you on the grading scale.
"That’s one of the factors that we look at – you can’t get an ‘excellent’ if you don’t comply with the Sunshine Law. The best you can get is a ‘good.’"
Although modified several times over the years, Missouri’s "Sunshine" law has been on the books since 1973.
It applies to the operations of "public governmental bodies," which the law defines as "any legislative, administrative or governmental entity created by the constitution or statutes of this state, by order or ordinance of any political subdivision or district, judicial entities when operating in an administrative capacity, or by executive order."
The audit noted that both houses of the Legislature "do not consider the Sunshine Law applicable to records of individual members."
And, while Schweich and his auditors understand "the need to keep certain records confidential," they think that "correspondence clearly relating to the conduct of public business should be subject to public scrutiny."
And the audit recommends that lawmakers amend the law "so that it clearly applies to individual members while carving out legitimate and necessary exceptions to public disclosure."
The audit also recommended lawmakers determine whether Missouri Employees Mutual, an insurance company created by the Legislature to deal mainly with workers’ compensation issues, should be covered by the law. MEM repaid its state start-up money and now says it’s not a "public body" as the law defines one.
It’s important for people to remember the Sunshine Law is for all citizens – not just the media.
"I think a lot of times, when we get a petition from citizens to audit a school district or a city," Schweich noted, "one of the main reasons the petitioners are angry is that, when they go to a meeting, it gets moved into closed session and they don’t learn anything.
"(The law) is for citizens who have concerns about their government – whether they be members of the media or members of the general public."
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