Sunshine Audits a Great Way to Test Compliance
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.