OUR OPINION: Sunshine Law benefits us all

Even after 50 years on the books, Missouri's Sunshine Law may be one of the most misunderstood and misapplied statutes in the Show-Me State.

Passed in 1973 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Missouri's Sunshine Law made Missouri one of the earliest advocates of open records and meetings. The law specifically states meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies are to be open to the public.

The underlying premise is that Missourians are best served when the public's business is conducted in the view of the public.

Sadly, that's not always the case.

Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed a lawsuit this week against a suburban St. Louis school board that allegedly strayed significantly beyond the scope of the law.

The lawsuit stems from a June 14 closed meeting of the Wentzville Board of Education in which board members were receiving legal advice and details on a student's request to use a different bathroom.

The discussion was allowed to be held in closed session under an exception under Missouri's Sunshine Law for discussion of legal matters.

But the board strayed from the original purpose of the closed meeting, Bailey's lawsuit alleges, because it became a discussion about transgender students' bathroom access.

In an affidavit in the lawsuit, two board members allege the board considered whether there should be exceptions for notifying parents when students request bathroom accommodations, such as in cases of parental abuse.

Accepting legal advice on this particular case would be allowable under Missouri's Sunshine Law, but venturing out into a discussion about a policy on bathroom access clearly is not allowed and should have been discussed in an open session.

"Parents have the right to know who is in the bathroom with their children," Bailey said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "Members of the Wentzville School Board knowingly and purposefully denied parents that right when they shrouded the transgender student bathroom usage policy in secrecy, directly violating the Open Meetings Law."

According to the affidavit, other board members also spoke against having the discussion about restroom access in closed session, but the debate continued.

Just as troubling as the alleged closed-door policy debate is a recently proposed ethics policy of the board. Under that policy, members who spoke out against the closed-door discussions could face retaliation.

The policy would punish board members who make comments that could be interpreted as "undermining" the administration and making "disparaging remarks" about other members.

In this instance, the policy would undermine the clear intent and application of the Sunshine Law by potentially punishing board members who would break ranks with the school board.

The Sunshine Law is clear in its intent and application. The public's business is to be conducted in the presence of the public as much as possible.

The law does provide 25 exceptions, including the discussion of legal matters, that would permit a closed session. But the law is abundantly clear: Missouri's Sunshine Law is to be "liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy (of open meetings and records)."

Whether due to ignorance or indifference, too many governmental agencies fail to meet the standard laid out by the Sunshine Law. And because of it, Missourians suffer the consequences.

In an effort to address any ignorance of the law, the Missouri Sunshine Coalition has been working with the attorney general's Sunshine Law compliance director to hold trainings around the state to educate officials and the public about the law.

In an effort to address the indifference, we are heartened by the attorney general's lawsuit to openly confront violations of the law.

Both of these approaches benefit us all.

Dennis Ellsworth, executive director of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition and a former newspaper editor, explains why the law is vital for our future.

"The important understanding is the Sunshine Law works for everyone -- young or old, those of all races and incomes, whether your allegiances are with Republicans, Democrats or another political movement," he said. "We all have a stake in seeing to it that the Sunshine Law is preserved, strengthened as necessary, and broadly embraced by the public."

-- News Tribune