Knowing the law: a brief look at the Missouri Sunshine Law

Sunshine LawIn this day and age, it’s important to know what a person can or can’t do, as well as what information is publically available to them. Most importantly, it’s essential that people know how they can better govern the actions of those elected into government bodies.

It was for this purpose that Missouri has what is known as the Missouri Sunshine Law, which was enacted by Missouri General Assembly in 1973 to provide citizens with access to information about their government. In fact, any “Governmental Body” is subject to this law, including outside organizations that contract with or handles activities agreed upon with public governmental bodies, also known as quasi-public governmental body.

On August 4, 1822, President James Madison was quoted saying, “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

To put simply, means citizens must know what their governments are doing. They must understand the limitations and boundaries of what they can or cannot do, which is why it is important to know at least the basis of the Sunshine Law and how it works. Listed below are the top ten things one should know about the Sunshine Law as it pertains to meetings and obtaining information on open topics and public figures.

• When in doubt, a meeting or record of a public body should be opened to the public.

• The Sunshine Law applies to all records, regardless of what form they are kept in, and to all meetings, regardless of the manner in which they are held.

• The Sunshine Law allows a public body to close meetings and records to the public in some limited circumstances, but it almost never requires a public body to do so.

• A public body generally must give at least 24 hours’ public notice before holding a meeting. If the meeting will be closed to the public, the notice must state the specific provision of the law that allows the meeting to be closed.

• Each public body must have a written Sunshine Law policy and a custodian of records whose name is available to the public upon request.

• The Sunshine Law requires a custodian of records to respond to a records request as soon as possible but no later than three business days after the custodian receives it.

• The Sunshine Law deals with whether a public body’s records must be open to the public, but it generally does not state what records the body must keep or for how long. A body cannot, however, avoid a records request by destroying records after it receives a request for those records.

• The Sunshine Law requires a public body to grant access to open records it already has, but it does not require a public body to create new records in response to a request for information.

• When responding to a request for copies of its records, the Sunshine Law limits how much a public body can charge for copying and research costs.

• There are special laws and rules that govern access to law enforcement and judicial records.

It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law. Public meetings, including meetings conducted by telephone, Internet or other electronic means, are to be held at reasonably convenient times and must be accessible to the public. Meetings should also be held in facilities that are large enough to accommodate anticipated attendance by the public and accessible to persons with disabilities.

For more information about the Missouri Sunshine Law visit http://ago.mo.gov/sunshinelaw.

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Posted on Monday, August 5, 2013 at 8:44 am