March 10-16 marks a celebration of open government and access for the people. It’s Missouri Sunshine Week.
It’s one week dedicated to keeping government open, accessible and accountable to the people it serves. The most important thing to know about the Sunshine Law is that it thankfully doesn’t just apply to one week in March. The Sunshine Law covers 52 weeks of every year.
The Missouri Sunshine Law is the law that allows journalists to examine court documents such as probable cause statements or grand jury indictments when people are charged with crimes. The law helps bring information about important criminal cases forward, so that members of the general public can form their own opinions on the work taking place in the criminal justice system, right here in Christian County.
The Sunshine Law and its provisions for access to court records helped make four of the stories in this week’s newspaper possible. The court documents cited in those four stories were all obtained through the use of Sunshine Law requests.
The Sunshine Law also helps us dive into government spending, which we’ve been doing a great deal of in all the communities we cover. Recently, we examined the overall budget of Clever, where former Police Chief Darren Whisnant recently resigned and the board of aldermen has revised the city’s budget for this year to allow for pay increases in the police department. In addition to keeping the Clever budget open for inspection, the public meetings in which aldermen debated, disagreed with each other and came to terms on police spending took place openly.
In Ozark, the Sunshine Law helps us examine a 3/8-cent transportation sales tax enacted by voters in 2017. We’re able to see how money the special tax generates, how its funds have accumulated over time, and how Ozark’s elected and appointed officials are putting the money into action through road improvement projects.
In Nixa, voters in the Nixa Public Schools district are about to consider a pair of ballot questions that proponents say would lead to infrastructure improvements, higher pay for new teachers and better preparation for a student population that is increasing steadily. Thanks to the Sunshine Law, we are able to examine Nixa’s history of property tax levies and bonding. We will also be able to track spending on any projects that are approved, so that tax dollars are not wasted carelessly. The Sunshine Law will also help us make sure school officials aren’t promising one thing and end up delivering something different.
The best part of the Sunshine Law is that it isn’t just for journalists, though we do use its provisions each day. The Sunshine Law is for everyone in order to ensure that government entities are accessible to everyone. If you’d like to learn more about your city government, your fire protection district, your state representative’s activities or your school district, Sunshine Week is a great excuse to get started researching. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has some great resources on his website to help you get started: https://ago.mo.gov/missouri-law/sunshine-law.