Herald-Whig View

Herald-Whig view: Let's keep sunshine beaming on public business

Posted: Mar. 10, 2018 12:01 am Updated: Mar. 10, 2018 11:50 pm

TODAY marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual campaign launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to emphasize the importance of government transparency by reminding all of us to be vigilant about protecting our access to open meetings and public records.

It has been 52 years since the federal Freedom of Information Act, the forerunner to various state statutes, was signed into law to address the potential for corruption and abuse of power that can only occur in the dark. These laws are vital in keeping you informed on what governmental bodies and elected officials are doing.

That the people's business at every level of government should be conducted in public was a fundamental principle advanced by our Founding Fathers. Sadly, it doesn't always happen.

Public officials too often work behind closed doors, seek to block access to information, or charge exorbitant fees for copying documents. The increased use of social media, email and cellphones continues to create challenges.

This week serves as a reminder that we, as journalists and citizens, must strive daily to eliminate these and other barriers that threaten our right to know.

In Missouri, several measures have been proposed to strengthen that state's Sunshine Law, which many transparency advocates claim lacks legal muscle.

Attorney General Josh Hawley, working in conjunction with the Missouri Press Association, has asked lawmakers to establish penalties where none currently exist for public officials or government agencies that violate record-retention laws by deleting records. He wants violators to face at most a year in prison, up to a $2,000 fine or both.

Hawley also is asking that his office be granted the power to issue subpoenas to government agencies or public officials to get information for inquiries on possible records-law violations. The office now must rely solely on the cooperation of the agencies or people under investigation.

In addition, Hawley wants to create a separate division in the attorney general's office dedicated to investigating records-law complaints.

To avoid conflicts, the division would have attorneys who would be separate from the rest of the office and never would defend an executive agency in any legal battle.

In a separate move, two identical bills (HB 2523 and HB 2524) introduced last month in the Missouri House would, in addition to stiffening fines for records-law violations, make deliberately charging excessive fees for public records a Class B misdemeanor with penalties of up to six months in jail.

All of these proposals have merit, and we strongly urge Missouri lawmakers to make strengthening laws governing access to public records a priority in the remaining two months of the legislative session.

Just as important, we encourage citizens to be engaged and proactive in exercising their rights to closely monitor the actions of governments in their communities.

Only by staying vigilant can we keep the sun shining this week and every week. Unfettered public access remains the best medicine for more accountable government.