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Editorial by Echo Menges
Edina, MO – Thursday, November 3, 2022 – The Missouri Sunshine Coalition, Missouri Attorney General’s Office and NEMOnews Media Group joined forces last week to bring needed education about the Missouri Sunshine Law to Northeast Missouri.
The free event was open to the public and held at the Knox County Community Center in Edina.
Members of elected boards were encouraged to attend, and lunch was provided ahead of the two hour training also free of charge.
The Missouri Sunshine Law is chapter 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. The law was enacted nearly 50 years ago and governs public meetings, public records, and public information for a myriad of public boards, local, county and state public offices, officials and government agencies.
The training was initiated because this reporter and the publishers of the NEMOnews Media Group confronted the reality that the law was not being followed during recent coverage of one specific board, the Scotland County Hospital District Board of Directors.
Elected board members throughout the region that do not have a basic understanding of or may be ignoring the Sunshine Law are not the exception to the rule, they are the rule.
Operating in a local government capacity without that basic understanding or interest in what public records are, how and when to distribute them, how public meetings are to be held, and what is expected of every public board during public meetings amounts to taking a risk and endangering the board itself.
Those who do not adhere to the law are open to lawsuits from anyone attempting to obtain public records and/or attend public meetings, prosecutors and AG’s office should those rights be violated.
Compacting the problem, free educational opportunities are not commonly offered in our rural region. I’ve been reporting from Edina since 2010 and we have never had anything like this come to Knox County.
Many of our locally elected board members are volunteers and do not get paid. The entities they serve do not have the budgets to send new members to Jefferson City for training, or have access to associations that offer the training as a perk of membership, which can be costly.
The stars aligned for this training to be able to happen thanks in large to the willingness of Casey Lawrence, Director of Sunshine Law Compliance, at the MO Attorney General’s Office. Lawrence was gracious to open her schedule to us to have what we considered an emergency training session for boards throughout the region.
Lawrence has been training people across the state for nearly nine years. She’s very good at her job, and she knows the Sunshine Law.
Another piece of the puzzle was the encouragement and support of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition Board of Directors, which I have been a part of for over two years now.
This is how our training came to be.
Just starting out, I remember telling people, “It would be cool if we could get 100 people there.” Not knowing what to expect.
As the training date approached, I hoped we may get 80 people to attend from throughout the region.
By the time the training was here, we had 150 people from 11 counties in the region signed up to attend, which was an overwhelming response.
Of those, 120 attendees made it to Edina for the training. Some traveled 130 miles round-trip to attend. A large swath of the attendees reported never knowing about training in our area, and that it was the first time ever attending a Sunshine Law training for many.
As the organizer of the event, I do feel a goal was accomplished last week. We did get vital information to a lot of people who needed it.
Also, it is clear our elected boards need to do more to protect their entities and the taxpayers from costly lawsuits.
For those who couldn’t make it, I encourage you to read chapter 610 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. You can also find all of the information offered at the training and more on the Missouri Attorney General’s website. The Sunshine Law is not a secret. It is openly available and accessible to everyone.
Yes, the state does need to do better to prepare local officials about the rules that govern them. At the end of the day, that’s not an excuse for those filling publicly elected board seats to be operating blindly. That responsibility, to educate yourself if you have to, is bestowed on everyone sworn-in to office.
There are no exceptions.