Sunshine Heroes: Examples for everyone who benefits from Missouri’s Sunshine Law

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition
Posted 8/3/22

COLUMBIA — The countdown to next year’s 50th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law will begin with a salute to three Sunshine Heroes — two individuals and an organization — …

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Sunshine Heroes: Examples for everyone who benefits from Missouri’s Sunshine Law

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COLUMBIA — The countdown to next year’s 50th anniversary of the Missouri Sunshine Law will begin with a salute to three Sunshine Heroes — two individuals and an organization — who have embraced the law and the value it holds for citizens across the state.

The Missouri Sunshine Coalition plans a Sept. 17 awards presentation for its 2022 Sunshine Heroes: Platte County resident Jason Maki, Greene County Clerk Shane Schoeller and nonprofit news service The Missouri Independent based in Jefferson City.

The awards recognize those who have distinguished themselves by using the Sunshine Law to gain access to public meetings and records, working to preserve and improve the law, and encouraging greater government transparency. Nominees were sought from private citizens, the legal profession, elected officials, government employees, the news media and others.

“The coalition went in search of individuals and organizations who understand the Sunshine Law is vital to building trust in government by ensuring the public has access to the records and deliberations of public governmental bodies,” said Executive Director Dennis Ellsworth. “We are delighted with the example set by each of the award-winners.”

Jason Maki is a resident of Platte County who brought a civil lawsuit against the city of Parkville alleging at least 59 violations of the Sunshine Law. The allegations involved fees for research and review of public records, unreasonable delays for production of records and improper denials of public records requests. The city reached an out-of-court settlement with Maki in July 2021, agreeing to pay $195,000 in what is thought to be the largest such settlement in Missouri history.

Maki, a private citizen who works in the technology industry and is not an attorney, represented himself in the court action. He began educating himself on the Sunshine Law in 2018 when he began making records requests to the city related to a large-scale development planned near his home. In his lawsuit, Maki contended among other things that the city was withholding records from him until he paid $2,757 beyond what he already had paid in fees. Maki believed the extra fees largely were attributable to city review time of the requested records, which he felt was unjustified and possibly illegal.

In a related matter, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in June 2021 “the Sunshine Law does not authorize a public governmental body to charge a requester for attorney review time.”

It is noteworthy that Maki has said he would have accepted a smaller settlement if the city of Parkville agreed to pass an ordinance making it illegal for public officials to use private emails for communication about public business. The city did not take him up on the offer and no ordinance to that effect has been enacted.

Shane Schoeller first was elected county clerk for Greene County in 2014 and is completing his second four-year term in office. In this role, he also serves as the county’s chief elections officer. His nomination noted his office is highly accessible to the public and news media seeking access to public records, and he has taken the initiative to host Sunshine Law workshops to assist with promoting compliance with the law. Before one of the workshops, Schoeller said he thought many violations could be traced to lack of education.

“When a Sunshine Law violation occurs, it is not unlikely that it occurred due to unfamiliarity with the law and its proper implementation,” he said in 2017. “We envision this workshop as a way to push past the legalese to bring about greater understanding of our responsibilities as government bodies. It’s also a unique opportunity to get government and public information folks in a room with members of the media to establish a dialogue to help ensure both the intent and spirit of the Sunshine Law are upheld.”

Schoeller’s introduction to public service can be traced to receiving a bachelor of science in political science from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, followed by stints working for U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft and U.S. Sen. Kit Bond. He later was a legislative assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt and chief administrative aide to Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, where he said he developed “a passion for fair, accessible, transparent and accountable elections.”

Before election to county clerk, Schoeller served in the Missouri House of Representatives from a district covering parts of northern Greene County, including the city of Springfield. His time in the House included roles as the second-ranking Republican and temporarily as the presiding speaker when the previous office holder resigned. He was elected to the House in 2006 and served until after the 2012 election, when he was an unsuccessful Republican nominee for Missouri secretary of state.

In fall 2020, a new nonprofit news organization — the Missouri Independent — launched in the state. The Independent has proven to be an important addition to statehouse coverage. From its earliest days, the staff has reported on looming threats to the Sunshine Law and used the law to assist in shedding light on official actions of government and the influences driving policies.

The Independent’s newsroom is led by Jason Hancock, editor-in-chief, and Rudi Keller, deputy editor, and includes reporters Rebecca Rivas, Tessa Weinberg, Allison Kite and Clara Bates. The Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit supported by individual donations and institutional grants. Hancock, a former Kansas City Star reporter, stresses donors have no influence over content.

 The Independent has reported numerous in-depth stories this year dealing with the Sunshine Law. These included reporting on the implications of an appeals court ruling in June finding that former Gov. Eric Greitens’ use of a self-destructing text message app wasn’t illegal. Other stories noted how state lawmakers and the governor were proposing sweeping changes to the Sunshine Law, including provisions that would keep more records from public view. Also, the staff reported how a loophole meant the state attorney general rarely enforced the Sunshine Law on state agencies.

Other notable reporting recounted how a state lawmaker didn’t turn over emails subject to a records request; that the governor’s office had refused to release a resignation letter from a senior staff member; that the state health department was accused of concealing documents sought in a medical marijuana lawsuit; and how state lawmakers were pushing to shield information about their contacts with constituents from disclosure.

Importantly, these stories all were provided at no cost to other news outlets across Missouri. Dozens of community newspapers and broadcast and digital news organizations have republished this content, greatly contributing to awareness of the Sunshine Law and the many ways in which it contributes to an informed citizenry.

(The Gasconade County Republican and Maries County Advocate newspapers periodically use stories produced by The Missouri Independent).

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