Springfield, MO News-Leader, Sunday 04/07/02

editorial: When winners get $33,000 bill, Sunshine Law needs to be fixed

Two Kansas City area residents won a rare court victory against public officials who sought to operate out of public view. But the price they paid for their victory highlights one of the weaknesses in the state's Sunshine Law.

Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner accused the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints of improperly deciding in secret a complaint Turner filed against the Sheriff's Department. She also said the office withheld documents concerning the complaint. A judge agreed, levying fines totaling $500.

WitbolsFeugen and Turner, though, face a $33,000 legal bill. The judge declined to order the commissioners to pay attorney expenses because "it might discourage citizens from serving on local boards and commissions."

That is backward. The bill is so high because the commission's attorney filed numerous pre-trial motions, dragging the case on for two years. If officials knew they would be responsible for legal costs if they lost, they'd be a lot quicker to call off the attorneys and release records that by right, belong to the public.

Because judges are reluctant to order officials or governmental bodies to pay attorneys' fees, government lawyers know that simply saying no or putting up an extended fight is enough to drive most people away. They have virtual immunity to operate in the dark and keep secrets.

The fix is simple. The law should simply say a governmental body that loses a Sunshine Law suit is responsible for paying the citizen's legal bills. That will open government in a hurry, making it far more accountable to the people it serves.

Previous article.

Next article.

Return to list of news accounts.