Independence Examiner, Wednesday 02/13/02

Outrage is compounded

The Examiner

Justice has not been served in a lawsuit brought by two private citizens over a Jackson County office's refusal to follow the state's open meetings/open record law.

Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner sued members of the county's Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints over improperly closed meetings and the improper withholding of documents from the public. A judge found in their favor, and assessed three county officials a whopping $500 in fines a cost the county taxpayers will pick up.

But guess who's on the hook for the plaintiffs' $33,000 in legal bills? That cost, the judge has ruled, will fall to WitbolsFeugen and Turner, the very people who just wanted their government to do the right thing and decided to do something about. They were right. They had their day in court, and they won. Why are they now being punished for that?

They are being punished, in part, because Missouri has a weak Sunshine Law. Attempts to strengthen the law are routinely and successfully opposed by lobbyists for, among others, local governments. A stronger law would leave no doubt if the government breaks the law, the government pays, period.

As it stands, people who sue over closed meetings have to meet an usually high burden of proof. In this case, that plaintiffs met that burden, but then the offenders were given token penalties. In other words, the law is such that your local government can say to you "heads we win, tails you lose."

Turner and WitbolsFeugen won what could have been a great victory. With no teeth in the law underpinning this case, one has to wonder what incentive the offender has to learn anything from this. One has to wonder what assurance the public has this improper behavior won't be repeated at a politician's whim.

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