Monday, April 21, 2008

Sunshine Audits a Great Way to Test Compliance

Sunshine Audits are a great tool to test the compliance of the Sunshine Law while also providing an opportunity to educate both leaders and members of the public about the Sunshine Law.

This is a topic I spoke on at the Ozarks Press Association meeting Friday, March 28 in Branson and something I'm going to write about here over the next few weeks.

But first, to set the stage, I want to share the text of story and Sunshine Audit done in March 2008 by Mert Seaton, managing editor of the Community Free Press in Springfield, Mo. Mert pulled off the only Sunshine Audit I recall being done in the Springfield media market over the past 5 or 10 years.

If you like want you read there, be sure and let Mert know.

State Sunshine Law Brought to Light

By Mert Seaton
Community Free Press

The Missouri Sunshine Law can be a confusing legal guideline for people to understand. There are many rules as to what is available and what is not.

“The Missouri Sunshine Law is the law that provides access to the public for meetings and records of public government bodies,” said James Klahr, Missouri assistant attorney general. “A public government body, defined in state law, covers a variety of public entities. The goal of the definition is to take in those public bodies that are tax supported.”

But what about the people controlling the information — do they understand their roles as the law applies to them?

The Community Free Press recently conducted a Sunshine Law audit on various public bodies to find out if the controllers of the information were following the law.
Sunshine requests were sent to 13 different public bodies in Greene and Christian County requesting each body’s written Sunshine Law policy. Each request was worded exactly the same, and sent electronically to each body’s custodian of records.

According to the state Sunshine Law, section 610.028, “Each public governmental body shall provide a reasonable written policy consistent with the Sunshine Law and open to the public regarding access to public records and meetings.”

Klahr said these policies do not have to have any kind of formal approval.

“The language is relatively broad,” Klahr said. “That is an issue where the legislature, if they wanted to, could add specifics to the law.”

According to the Missouri Sunshine Law, law requires that “each request for access to a public record be acted on no later than the end of third day following the date the request is received by the custodian.”

The first policy received was from the Christian County Planning and Zoning Department, followed by Greene County who sent the information within 24 hours.
“We take it (the Sunshine Law) very seriously,” said Richard Struckhoff, Greene County clerk.

Struckhoff said his office does everything it can to respond to requests quickly, but they are not also able to respond as fast as they did to this request.

“It depends on the type of response,” he said. “We have a lot of requests that require research.”

Other bodies that sent their policy within the three-day period were: CU, Republic, Willard, Nixa, Nixa Fire Department, Ozark, and the Ozark Fire Department.

The city of Springfield was sent the Sunshine request on February 27. A read receipt attached to the e-mail showed the request was read the evening of February 28.

After three days, no response from the city was sent and a phone call was made on March 6 to City Clerk Brenda Cirtin.

Cirtin said she was out sick the week the request was made and she read the e-mail from home. She sent the policy a few hours later.

Klahr said he couldn’t comment on this specific incident, but noted that it creates a sticky situation.

“The statute clearly says what happens when the person is there (in the office),” he said. “But it doesn’t deal with them not being there. That is the type of thing that public bodies could have in their policies.”

Three bodies replied, but did not have a Sunshine Law Policy on file. One of those bodies was Christian County.

“As far as I know we don’t we have anything, but we need to have something,” Christian County Clerk Kay Brown said.

Brown said part of the problem was the lack of county records her office currently has.

“The Commission passed an ordinance in March of 2003 naming the county clerk as the custodian of records,” Brown said in an e-mail. “However, I do not have the records after 1992, only prior.”

Brown said she thought the lack of a policy had been brought up before, but she would address the issue again. She also noted that she did not believe the Christian County Commission had a written Sunshine Law policy.

Other bodies that did not have policies were the Christian County Library and the Springfield/Greene County Library.

“We overlooked the fact we didn’t have a policy,” said Annie Busch, executive director of the library district. “I assumed there had been one from several years ago, but we can’t find one so we might as well not have one.”

Busch said she is currently writing a policy and will take it to the library board for approval.

Klahr said a bill that would require training for all members of public bodies is working its way through the state legislature. He said this kind of training would be a good tool for public officials.

“Public bodies and people that are members of those bodies need to understand their obligations under the Sunshine Law,” he said. “Being familiar and competent on Sunshine Law issues is not only important for legal reasons, but it is also important in communicating to the public that the public body knows and understands their obligations.”

Again, great piece by Mert Seaton.

Are you interested in doing a Sunshine Law audit of your own? Next weel, I'll start sharing information and links on how you can do that very thing.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

4th place in Student 1st Amendment Essay Contest from Strafford

What Free Media Means to America
By Joshua Scott Holcomb

When you watch the news, do you want to hear someone else’s opinion about what is going on, or do you want to hear what is actually going on? When you listen to the radio, do you want one view on a political issue, or do you want a variety of views? When you read the newspaper, do you want to hear the complaints of the healthy, wealthy, and prosperous, or do you want to know how to help those who are in a minority and actually have real problems? In short, do you believe that our media should be biased to those with power, or do you believe that all Americans have the right to have access to a free media?

The first amendment of our Constitution addresses free media. It says, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” This right to free media is what the rest of the Bill of Rights hinges upon. If the government had control of our media, the rights of the people could be infringed upon, the cry of our citizens could be suppressed, the objections of our fellow Americans could be covered up – all without the public’s knowledge. A society without a free media is a society without a free people.

But free media has uses other than just giving us some security against the government infringing upon our rights. The way a political candidate is portrayed and spoken about in the media is very instrumental in swaying the public’s opinion. Without a free media, voters would be fed biased opinions and one-sided arguments to influence their vote. Having a free media allows the people to form their own opinions about the candidates and make the decision that they believe is right for our country. This is a free society; this is a government run by the people and for the people.

As you can see, it would be impossible for our free society to function as it does without a free media. Free media means exposure when we are wronged and recognition when we do right. No free media means isolation. Free media means citizens can choose the candidate most in line with their views. No free media means dictation. We are a free society and so Americans have the right to have access to a free media.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

3rd in Student 1st Amendment Essay Contest Goes to Stockton Student

Stephanie Tucker
Grade 12 – Stockton High School, Stockton, Mo.
Teacher: Kim Chism Jasper

Free to be Informed

“Write what only you can write,” my English instructor repeats constantly. In our class my instructor challenges us to write a paper that makes a reader second-guess or question their beliefs. You might ask yourself, “What gives someone the right to publish an essay that questions a society’s beliefs?” The answer is free media.

I am a senior in high school and co-editor of the yearbook. As yearbook editor my job is to oversee the work of the staff members and make decisions regarding what events to cover in our book. As a staff we take hundreds of photos each year to compile in our annual book. We have the freedom to include any image or story we want without having to answer to anyone. Without free media our yearbook staff would not be able to write and include the stories that we do. We would not be able to achieve our sole purpose, which is to inform the public.

“Educate and inform the whole masses of the people… They are the only sure reliance for preservation of our liberty,” said Thomas Jefferson, an advocate for free media, and I have him to thank for one of the most used freedom I have. He believed that in order for a society to flourish, the citizens must be well educated and informed of their surroundings. Free media may seem simple and irrelevant to the masses, but without free media the masses would not be able to make daily decisions.

This November our country will make one of the most important decisions regarding our future. We will elect a leader who will represent our society for the next four years and serve as our president. This will be the first presidential election I will be allowed to vote in. I am nervous about making the right decision and choosing a president that will serve me.

In order to make a more informed decision I watch the presidential debates, read articles in the newspaper, and listen to reports on the news. Without the free media, it would be impossible for an 18-year-old student to make an educated decision and vote for the right candidate.

Whether I am doing a task as simple as creating a yearbook to cover a school year or making the important decision of whom to vote for, I rely on the media to inform me. Without free media, I would not be able to save a moment in a yearbook or to save our country with a single vote.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Meeting Minutes May Not Be What You Think

I get lots of calls from reporters and individuals who have questions about the Sunshine Law. I’m not a legal expert but I do normally know where to find the information.

Plus, I have the advantage of having my notes from a presentation by the Assistant Missouri Attorney General on the Sunshine Law hosted by MU Extension in Springfield during the fall of 2007.

One issue that I get lots of questions about is meeting minutes. Most people are very surprised when they discover that Missouri state law does not require as much in meeting minutes as they think it should.

For example, this comes from the fall meeting I hosted on the Sunshine Law:

Questions about meeting minute retention and content is something Attorney General’s office get lots of calls about. People are surprised sometimes when they attend a 3-hour minute and then see minutes that are 2 pages long.

“Missouri’s requirement for minutes is very basic. The statue says you have to show date, time and place of meeting, who attended and the record/count of votes. If you want to know what was discussed a public might need to be able to look back and see more than just votes but the law does not require it. This is part of the reason why citizens have the right to come into any public meeting and record it,” said James Klahr, Assistant Missouri Attorney General.

The state law discussing this issue can be found at

It says, “A journal or minutes of open and closed meetings shall be taken and retained by the public governmental body, including, but not limited to, a record of any votes taken at such meeting. The minutes shall include the date, time, place, members present, members absent and a record of any votes taken. When a roll call vote is taken, the minutes shall attribute each "yea" and "nay" vote or abstinence if not voting to the name of the individual member of the public governmental body.”

Klahr emphasized these three points at the fall 2007 session on the Sunshine Law.

1) Official minutes of a meeting are not required to be a transcript.

2) Members of the public have a right to get draft minutes of a meeting even before they are voted on or approved but they should be marked as draft.

3) Requirements for minutes are very vague which is why it is so important for citizens to be able to record what is taking place at the meetings.

The first point may be the most important to remember. And that is straight from the Missouri Attorney General's office.