Celebration of openness has special urgency

March 11, 2021 4:20 pm

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City (photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Public Safety).

A year ago this week, the world descended into the throes of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s fitting that our year of darkness appears to be ending as Sunshine Week 2021 gets underway.

This annual celebration of openness in government, created by the news publishers who often lead the fight for it, has special resonance this year. It also has special urgency.

Among the most valuable lessons we’ve learned in the last year is that our democracy is a fragile thing. It can only survive with watchful care from all citizens and, yes, sunshine.

Think access to government information makes no difference to you?

Think of the families of those living in long-term care facilities across the state. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, these Missourians immediately realized they and their loved ones had a personal stake in knowing what the government knew about the outbreak. Missouri health officials’ refusal to release detailed data forced some academic researchers and journalists to try to close the information gap.

A year of social distancing (not to mention political derriere-covering) led some government agencies to begin shutting doors that had been open to the public. We need to fight to open them again. Masking may be the right move for people in a pandemic, but not for the public’s information.

Here are some of the issues the Missouri Sunshine Coalition is watching.

Slow-walking public records requests

The Missouri House overwhelmingly approved pandemic-inspired legislation that would allow public agencies to put a pause on public records requests (which normally must be fulfilled by legally specified deadlines) when the agencies are closed.

Sounds like a reasonable move to ease pressure on public officials trying to deal with an emergency, but the Associated Press points out the legislation also would apply to state lawmakers when the state legislature is not in session, which is most of the year. That means your elected officials could legally ignore your requests for information for months.

Democracy by video?

Another AP study found many public bodies are taking advantage of video livestreaming to minimize public participation in what are supposed to be public meetings. As a tool that allows the public – at least the public that has reliable broadband – to watch meetings from their computers or smart devices, livestreaming is a great supplement to sunshine in government. But because it limits the opportunities for the public to interact with officials, it should never serve as a permanent replacement for in-person meetings that are open to the public. The AP survey of state legislative bodies found that some — including Missouri’s General Assembly — are not making it standard practice to allow people to testify remotely at committee hearings. Some city councils are only allowing written comments from the public. In a post-pandemic world, that won’t be good enough.

The private vaccine club?

Governors, public health officials and their advisers in at least 13 states have been holding key discussions — about who should be eligible for vaccines and when and how to distribute the shots — behind closed doors, the AP found. Missouri opened its advisory committee meetings only after The Missouri Independent questioned why earlier sessions had been secret.

Lessons from elsewhere

The plummeting political fortunes of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should serve as a vivid warning of the dangers that await politicians who put their own reputations ahead of the public’s right to know. Cuomo’s popularity began to unravel with revelations that he cooked the books on nursing home deaths in his state.

He wasn’t alone in trying to keep a lid on grim information; just look to the Missouri Veterans Commission and its efforts to keep secret a damning report on its failures to respond quickly and capably to the crisis in its seven care homes.

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition recently signed a letter supporting our sister organization in Kentucky in a fight to stop a brazen move by that state’s lawmakers to gut their Sunshine Law. The effort got underway in tellingly sneaky fashion when lawmakers in a committee deleted the text of a one-page “act relating to financial institutions” and replaced it with a 23-page bill that puts draconian limits on how much information the public can get under Kentucky’s open records act.

To borrow the terminology in popular currency these days, we have to stop this virus before it replicates.

“This is what citizens and voters hate about politics,” veteran news columnist Al Cross quoted Kentucky lawmaker Mary Lou Marzian saying of the efforts to gut the open records law in her state. “Why would we have a change in our system of open public records when we didn’t have something to hide?”

If 2020 taught us anything, it is the dangers that can be unleashed when Americans feel they lose ownership of their government. Rather than using the pandemic as an excuse to retreat from open records and open meetings commitments, law and policy makers ought to be doubling down on an effort to increase trust in democracy. That’s what the Missouri Sunshine Coalition plans to be doing in the coming year. We hope you will join us.

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Kathy Kiely
Kathy Kiely

Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. She also is on the board of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a nonprofit partnership of businesses, news media, government officials and citizens who advocate for open meetings and open records. The group has offices in Columbia.