By Kat Riddler, Managing Editor
Transparency is a goal that every governmental entity should strive to achieve. Sometimes, those public institutions fall short. When they do, both the federal and state government have provided citizens with a possible remedy, in the form of what has been termed ‘Sunshine Laws’.
Recently, at the University Assembly, the question was raised about audio and video recording their meetings. The proper question to raise is would that be legal? Unless there is a legitimate legal reason to have a closed meeting, and proper notice of that reason and a recorded roll call vote taken, not only must meetings of the university assembly be open, but the public is specifically granted by law the right to record such meetings.
Sunshine Laws were adopted based on a premise contained in James Madison’s Federalist Papers #49. In that essay, he states “’the people are the only legitimate foundation of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter … is derived. Government is and should be the servant of the people, and it should be fully accountable to them for the actions which it supposedly takes on their behalf.”
The Federal Sunshine Act is a U.S. law passed in 1976 that affects the operations of the federal government. There is also a Missouri Sunshine Law which is enforced by the Missouri Attorney General.
The Missouri Sunshine Law defines those entities subject to the Sunshine law as any “legislative, administrative or governmental entity” and includes any agency, council, committee, any governing body of any public institution of higher education, departments or divisions of the state, any quasi-public body, and legislative/administrative bodies with the power to make rules or hear and decide cases.
That means for any meeting on campus, from University Assembly meetings to the Student Government Association, you should have open access to documents and meeting minute records, because the University of Missouri-St. Louis is considered by law as a public institution of higher education. The University System is chartered by the state and receives government funding, albeit not enough. Meeting minutes, by law, should include, but are not limited to, a record of any votes taken, date, time, place, members present, and members absent at that meeting.
According to Missouri Statute 610.010.5(5), a public meeting is defined as any meeting where “public business is discussed, decided or public policy formulated,” and is therefore open to the public. To further make sure there is no deception, individuals have the right to record a meeting by audiotape, videotape or other electronic means without permission as long as it is an open meeting.
There have been instances of committees pushing for closed meetings to purportedly discuss more freely, but there is a rule in the Missouri statute that there has to be a public roll call vote to do so. The names and votes must be submitted into the public meeting minutes and the reason of the move to closed session to avoid governmental bodies moving to closed meetings just to avoid the Sunshine Law.
The law also spells out the specific instances in which a meeting is allowed to go into closed session and can only be closed for those reasons. Section 610.022 also requires that public governmental bodies give at least 24 hours notice of each proposed closed meeting and provide the reason for holding it by reference to the specific exception allowed under statute 610.021.
Having open meetings and a press that is able to accurately record what goes on in those meetings serves the positive function of keeping the public informed. It is from the people that the power and funding of public institutions comes and we must be accountable to them. For those who fail to do so, the Missouri Sunshine Law provides for stiff penalties.