Independence Examiner, Monday 09/30/02

Black eye for county

The Missouri Press Association on Saturday honored two Jackson County residents for their efforts to hold their government accountable for its actions.

Bob WitbolsFeugen of Independence and Karen Turner of Kansas City received the Missouri Sunshine Award for their persistent efforts to get answers about the killing of WitbolsFeugen's daughter, Anastasia. Earlier this year, a court found that members of the Jackson County Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints has violated state law by meeting in secret and by denying WitbolsFeugen and Turner public information. The judge in the case imposed a ludicrously low fine of $500 and the county taxpayers, not the officials who willfully broke the law, paid for that.

WitbolsFeugen and Turner, meanwhile, are on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. This is just plain wrong. This is a continuing black eye for Jackson County, and everyone in the state can see it except for some Jackson County officials, particularly those in the county executive's administration.

WitbolsFeugen addressed those gathered Saturday for the press association convention and told them that this court decision has greatly damaged the state's Sunshine Law. We would add that the law is intentionally weak the General Assembly blows off reform each year and that this year's decision makes a bad law a lot worse.

"Ultimately, the Sunshine Law itself carries blame, as it is rife with loopholes, which along with its own ambiguous language, helped speed its demise," WitbolsFeugen said.

He suggests several changes that have been in the hopper for some time. The fines of $500 per violation are meaningless. The requirement that a judge find a violation to have been "purposeful" is bizarre does a cop have to find that you "purposefully" ran a red light? and has long been a stumbling block to reform of the law. WitbolsFeugen suggests stiffer fines, no latitude for judges in imposing penalties and reimbursement of plaintiffs' fees when they win in court.

Other than the suggestion about judges' discretion and that is a big part of the injustice done to WitbolsFeugen and Turner these are all ideas that have been around for some time. Every year, local governments shoot them down in Jefferson City.

Now we have an outrageous case that's the logical result of a bad law and arrogant actions by government officials who act as if they are accountable to no one. It took citizens spending their own time and money even to press the issue this far.

Is anyone in Jefferson City listening, or does anyone care that Jackson County is a laughingstock?

Previous article.

Next article.

Return to list of news accounts.