Posted tagged ‘Sunshine’

Missouri gets an glowing “F” on Sunshine compliance

December 6, 2007

Jean Maneke, the Missouri Press Association’s legal counsel, writes in the December issue of Missouri Press News that the state fails miserably when it comes to appealing denials of sunshine requests. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to appeal a a denial. The failing grade comes from a survey of all states and is available http://nfoic.org/newsw/bag/overview.html.

Not only does the survey indicate that there’s no alternative than a clogged court system available to the public, but that if and when an appeal is ever successful, the penalty is simply a civil one.

“That’s a sad commentary on the status of our state’s open meetings law, ins’t it?” she opines. Sad indeed.

Advertisements

Gadfly and the Sunshine gang

November 16, 2007

It was a refreshing discussion at Evangel University Nov. 15 when the Gadfly joined members of the Springfield media and James Klahr, from the AG’s office, to discuss the practical applications of the Sunshine Law. David Burton with the University of Missouri Extension Office and the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists deserve praise for providing the opportunity to learn about the law, discuss its importance and to air frustrations over its flaws.

Klahr gave an overview of the state’s open records law that is often misunderstood, under utilized and sometimes plainly and purposefully ignored. Tony Messenger, editorial page editor for the Springfield News-Leader, expounded on his e-mail odyssey with the governor’s office that will surely set straight any misconceptions that e-mail communications among government officials are off limits to the public. And Ron Davis, senior producer with KSPR,  shared his many, many years of experience in digging for and reporting on news in southwest Missouri. He drove home the point that journalists must turn the page to find the story.

The three local panelists are glaring examples of what’s needed to hold government accountable and what is all too often missing. While Christian County resident (Gadfly) Ernie O’Gaffney takes hit after hit by the status quo in this county, he is evidence that one person can make a difference. The public is better served when people like him take a stand.
But his experience is also evidence that the Sunshine Law is not easily enforced and when the public, which includes the media, run up against cranky public officials, often the only recourse is to sue. His litigation languishes still—since March—with the AG’s office. That makes it easy for officials to break the law and watch while nothing ever happens.

But what was more important about last night’s seminar is that the room was full of student journalists who may have heard for the first time how important it is to hold government accountable. Davis made it clear that journalists cannot expected to be liked by the folks they cover and that it isn’t in anyone’s interest to sidle up and drink at the trough of government gruel—PR.

Without oversight, which is the main job of the press, even the best of intentions can go haywire.
Secondly, there were a number of local residents there who are struggling to hold their officials accountable and needed the pep talk to assure them they’re on the right side of tracks.

Three important points came from the discussion:
• The Sunshine Law is for everyone, not just the media
• The Sunshine Law needs teeth to discourage noncompliance
• And, as Davis put it, public officials are people like you and me. Most want to do a good job and are willing to comply with that and all the other laws; they should be respected for their public service. Scrutiny simply helps them attain that nobility.

From football to kickin’ around in the sunshine

November 8, 2007

The Ozark community rejoiced in a nail-biter of a football game last night when the Tigers beat Union in OT by a two-point conversion. That brings the Tigers to the quarter finals Monday night in Ozark against Carthage. To borrow a quote from Bill Shankly:
“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”
Good luck to the Ozark Tigers and we hope to see them advance to the finals.
**************
Now to less serious business. The Gadfly will lend his experiences to a panel discussion on the Sunshine Law later this month with esteemed colleagues in media. I am not sure why the event is presented as “the practical use of Missouri’s Sunshine law,” unless that means to enforce it, you have to practically be a lawyer, play one on TV, or have enough discretionary money on hand to hire one to sue and still be able to retire someday.

Many, not all, public officials snub their noses at the law and rather than give up what might be inconvenient, challenge the public’s right to know and suffer insignificant consequences. They, some close to home, cry foul when a citizen exercises his or her right to sue and then the officials complain about having to retain counsel to defend themselves.
Please. Stop the madness. Obey the law—we ask so little from you.

Anyway, here it is from the horses mouth:

Sunshine Law topic of media panel discussion Nov. 15 at Evangel

SPRINGFIELD, MO. — “Practical Use of the Sunshine Law” will be the topic of a media panel discussion starting at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 15, in Room 102 of Trask Hall (aka Academic Building 2) on the campus of Evangel University in Springfield.

The event is free and open to the public.

The Southwest Missouri PRO Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in conjunction with the pre-law club and the Society of Collegiate Journalists at Evangel, are jointly hosting this panel discussion to focus attention on the practical use of Missouri’s Sunshine Law.

Panelists include Ron Carrier, chief counsel for the Missouri attorney general in southwest Missouri; Tony Messenger, Springfield News-Leader editorial page editor; Ron Davis, KSPR senior news producer; and Ernie O’Gaffney, Christian County resident.

The program will include a 30-minute overview of the Sunshine Law and then an open panel discussion about the pros and cons of the Sunshine Law, ways to use the law effectively, examples of how the law can be used and some things that might be changed to improve the law.

Parking is available on the east side of the campus, facing Glenstone, and signs will be posted pointing visitors toward Trask Hall.

For more information about the program or the panelists, contact either David Burton, president of the local SPJ Chapter at (417) 862-9284 or Melinda Booze, journalism/communication instructor at Evangel (417) 865-2815.

Dry ‘writ’ at courthouse

October 23, 2007

Ernie O’Gaffney had at least part of his day in court this morning when Douglas County Judge Craig Carter took under advisement the Writ of Mandamus attorney James Owen filed against the county on behalf of O’Gaffney. The writ, if successful, would compel the Christian County Commission to obey state law and its own resolution by giving custody of its records to County Clerk Kay Brown.
That assumes that the commission is out of compliance with the statute that says the Clerk of the County Commission is the custodian of records. Attorney Todd Johnson argued for two of the county commissioners, presiding John Grubaugh and associate Tom Huff, that they are not out of compliance. He said that Brown has access to all the records as needed.
Brown has contended in the past that she is responsible for the records and cannot adequately fulfill her duties as custodian of those records because she does not have custody of them. She must access the records that sit inside the commission chambers through Grubaugh rather than independently. She does record meetings and take minutes—that began in February when she relieved the commission secretary of those duties.

Johnson argued that the public is being well-served and that if an open records request is not fulfilled the Sunshine Law provides for a legal remedy. In other words the public has a right to sue. Which is pretty much what O’Gaffney has done–with this writ and another suit charging Sunshine violations. Included in that suit is a forgery complaint—where white-out was used to post date a document and Associate Commissioner Bill Barnett’s signature appeared when it shouldn’t or couldn’t have (because he was on sick leave.)

The broader picture here is that it should not be incumbent on the public to sue for access to public records. And the county shouldn’t be spending money on attorneys who instruct them on how to circumvent the Sunshine Law rather than openly complying with it. The Sunshine Law does not mandate that any records be closed, it only allows for that in narrowly construed instances.
Open records are in the public’s interest. Open the vault and let the sun shine in!