Missouri Sunshine Law illuminates government work

By Shane Schoeller, For the Springfield Business Journal
Posted 9/28/22

The power of the sun to illuminate our day is without question.

The power of the Sunshine Law to illuminate the work of our state and local governments through empowering citizens to have access …

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Missouri Sunshine Law illuminates government work

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The power of the sun to illuminate our day is without question.

The power of the Sunshine Law to illuminate the work of our state and local governments through empowering citizens to have access in obtaining the open records of their government is also without question. The Sunshine Law is essential for keeping citizens informed about the actions, meetings and deliberations made by government officials and to safeguard the transparency critical to government accountability.

Duty calls

As Greene County clerk, it is my duty to respond to all Sunshine Law requests for both the Office of the County Clerk and the Greene County Commission. It is a duty that I, as well as each team member of this office, take seriously each time a record request is submitted.

It is a commitment to not only meet the letter of the law, but to go further when necessary to ensure the spirit of the law is being met to reduce unnecessary barriers for citizens to obtain public records.

The goal of the office each time a records request is made is to do more than just the minimum response. Occasionally, that means responding with questions to clarify the request so that we fully understand the nature of it and fulfill it correctly.

If there is uncertainty, we strive to help the requestor identify if the requested records they are seeking are from the county or a municipal entity here, for example, in Greene County. No less important, we are committed to providing the records to the requestor quickly and efficiently. Doing so helps meet the objective of providing records without unnecessary barriers.

I endeavor also to learn from others, and help others learn the Sunshine Law, through both attending and hosting forums that provide education and training on the various aspects of the law. The Sunshine Law, due to the scope, can be very broad and encompassing.

The law can be multifaceted, depending on the nature of the information requested from a record, such as employee records, law enforcement reports or meeting minutes from a closed session of the governing body.

Consequently, request fulfillments can be very daunting for personnel who have never had formalized training in the Sunshine Law. Learning through these training forums can make a significant difference in better understanding and fulfilling the merits of transparency and openness when providing requested records.

Closed records

Within Missouri State law, not all records are open to the public, and the statutory reason for closure must be communicated to the requestor. For example, there are closed records that remain sealed except by an order from a court or the Missouri General Assembly. 

One specific example that has become relevant recently for election officials is requests for cast vote records that, if opened, could compromise the secrecy of a voter and their voted ballot.

I firmly believe in and support election transparency in accordance with the Sunshine Law while balancing that with protecting the secrecy of how individuals vote on their ballots. To ensure I am being held accountable, I am seeking accountability through a court ruling before proceeding and making a decision that potentially compromises the secrecy of voted ballots or prevents the transparency the Sunshine Law was established to protect.

I know I am better for the Sunshine Law and the accountability it gives me as I serve the citizens of our county. The power the Sunshine Law gives citizens to learn, and be informed, gives the people the power to act, if necessary. I will always strive to safeguard and protect that right without apology.

(Shane Schoeller is Greene County clerk and a 2022 Sunshine Hero award recipient from the Missouri Sunshine Coalition. This column was originally published Sept. 16 by the Springfield Business Journal).

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