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Schweich, Koster highlight the Sunshine Law -- and those who violate it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2012 - State Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican, and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, a Democrat, are beginning work this week by highlighting the state’s Sunshine Law – and those who violate it.

Both offices note that this week is “Sunshine Week’’ to promote the law’s open-government mandates.

Koster said his office has “received more than 1,300 sunshine-related questions and complaints” during 2011.

“Almost all of those questions and complaints have been resolved and the cases closed,” the attorney general said in a statement.

Schweich, who is considering a bid for the U.S. Senate this fall, issued a report this morning that asserts “state and local governing bodies routinely violate Missouri's sunshine law, which calls for open, transparent government.”

Schweich bases that finding on his staff’s review of “sunshine law-related findings and recommendations contained in the nearly 300 reports released by the state auditor's office between January 2010 and December 2011.”

Almost one in five, he said, “contained one or more sunshine law violations.”

The most common violation? Closed meetings.

More than 10 percent of the examined audits concluded that the government body being examined either “failed to document the vote to go into closed meeting” or failed to cite what provision of state law was being used to justify the closed meeting.

And in a majority of the above cases, the topics discussed during those closed meetings either “did not appear to be allowable under state law,” or the officials “discussed issues other than those cited as the basis for going into closed meetings.”

Schweich's report said, “Some conducted business outside of regular open meetings, while some did not comply with state law regarding telephone/e-mail voting.”

Another frequent violation? The failure to post meeting notices and agendas ahead of time, during the period required by state law.

And some bodies also have failed to allow proper public access to records, another mandate under state open-records laws.

"It is imperative the public entities take the sunshine law seriously and abide by its requirements, Schweich concluded. 

Koster, meanwhile, noted that his staff has conducted almost 300 sunshine law presentations for the public and governmental agencies since 2009.

“My office has made openness of government a priority,” Koster said in a statement. “We have been to every county in Missouri to talk to local public officials about their obligations under the sunshine law. We take every complaint seriously, and we always operate from the viewpoint of the right of Missourians to know how their government is operating.”

Koster’s staff is holding a free public workshop on the Sunshine Law at 10 a.m., Fri., in Jefferson City. The meeting is to be held in the state’s Governor Office Building, 200 Madison Ave., Room 450. 

“The public is invited to attend, along with all interested elected officials and members of boards and commissions,” Koster said.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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