The flimsy excuses cited by state and local officials for blocking public access to meetings and public records get more creative by the day. Missouri’s Sunshine Law apparently isn’t clear enough for some officials to understand that they cannot legally stop the public from knowing what they’re up to just because the exposure makes them uncomfortable.
As we have noted in recent weeks, the current process to consider privatizing St. Louis Lambert International Airport — arguably the most important single asset in the city — is shrouded in secrecy. The Airport Advisory Working Group, the key decision-making body in this process, has held five hours of closed-door meetings this year for every one hour conducted in open session.
Once a meeting is closed, it’s largely up to participants to understand the limits imposed by the Sunshine Law and decide to challenge others for holding discussions in private that should be held in public. The problem is that, in the case of the airport working group, only one elected official, Alderman Marlene Davis, attends the regular meetings. The rest are appointees who aren’t accountable to voters for their actions.
At the group’s Oct. 31 meeting, an unidentified concerned citizen challenged members when they decided to go behind closed doors. According to the minutes, working group member Mike Garvin “explained that it is legal to do so and is allowed because the group is discussing privileged information with legal counsel.” The citizen asked that the record show he objected.
Good for that citizen for speaking up. More need to do likewise.
This newspaper sought court intervention to force Sunshine Law compliance when the state refused to release public information about applicants seeking licenses to grow or sell medical marijuana. Likewise, the newspaper sued Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner‘s office to stop her from hiding the contracts signed with private law firms and other service providers as she defended herself in court, at taxpayer expense, against professional misconduct allegations.
Officials try all sorts of ways to block access, including charging exorbitant fees. That was how the University of Missouri tried to discourage an animal-rights group from seeking access to documents revealing the ways 179 dogs and cats were used in research experiments and testing. A Boone County judge ruled Friday that the university’s charge of $82,000 was excessive and unjustified.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services tried to charge $1.4 million for historical birth and death records sought by Brooke Ganz, who runs a genealogy nonprofit.
Such charges are, of course, ridiculous, especially in an era when electronic access to documents can make quick work of most Sunshine Law requests. But the entire goal, apparently, is to prevent the public from knowing, which is why officials will keep evading compliance unless Missourians declare loudly and clearly: Not so fast.