Three advocates for Missouri’s law mandating open meetings and open records maintain it works best when government and citizens work together to achieve its aims.
The Sunshine Law marks its 50th anniversary in 2023. On Saturday, Sept. 17, two individuals and a not-for-profit news organization were recognized as Sunshine Heroes in an awards presentation at Lake Ozark.
“I have told my colleagues in the office I don’t feel deserving because we’re just doing our job. However, I also know that what we do is so important,” said Shane Schoeller, Greene County clerk and one of this year’s honorees for his efforts to help citizens access public records.
Others recognized were the Missouri Independent, a Jefferson City-based news organization focused on coverage of state government, and Jason Maki, a Platte County citizen-advocate who won a $195,000 settlement from the city of Parkville after the city resisted complying with his records requests about a large-scale development planned near his home.
“It’s a lonely battle taking on city hall,” Maki noted in his remarks. “I was made out to be someone who was a problem citizen, as opposed to someone just asking questions.”
Jason Hancock, editor-in-chief of the Independent, recounted how his news organization launched in fall 2020 “with a goal to spread good-quality watchdog journalism about state government” to an underserved audience across the state.
“That job is impossible without the Sunshine Law,” Hancock said. “It is not just a tool for reporters trying to get stories. It is a vital piece of democracy.”
The other speakers struck the same theme as they accepted their awards.
Schoeller encouraged the public and news media to be initially patient with local officials in smaller communities and agencies who might not know the law as well as they should. “They may be learning, and you can help them,” he said.
“Together we have a much better chance to be able to do that which is right when we are being transparent and we are being accountable to one another,” Schoeller said.
Maki, who is not an attorney and represented himself in pursuing his claims, recited a quotation from a public-records advocate that was meaningful to him: “Examining public records should never require extraordinary legal or bureaucratic efforts. When it does, it’s usually a red flag.”
In his community, he said, the denial of records was just part of the problem. An ethics investigation led to a censure and there is an ongoing criminal investigation, he said.
Maki urged his listeners to pay attention when they hear about other people who are trying to do what he did, to get to the bottom of something, to get facts about local government affairs.
“I ask that you celebrate them, too. Those people need to be recognized so they have the courage to come forward and make their requests,” he said.
The Sunshine Heroes Awards are sponsored by the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, a partnership of supporters from the media, civic and business interests across the state. This year’s awards were presented at the annual convention of the Missouri Press Association.
The coalition’s mission is to promote awareness and education about the Sunshine Law. For more information, contact Dennis Ellsworth, coalition executive director, at email@example.com or 816-261-5373.