If a member of the public runs a red light and says, "Oops, officer, I didn't see it," the officer will respond with a ticket resulting in a fine. But if a politician violates the law by meeting in secret or withholding records, the politician needs only to say, "Oops, I didn't know that," and may avoid a fine.
This occurred when former Mayor Bill Kersten challenged the 1998 Liberty School Board. Circuit Judge Michael Maloney refused to fine board members whom he agreed violated the law in several ways.
A more serious case occurred following the Oct. 22, 1997 murder of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, 18, Independence. Her father sought information from the Jackson County Counselor's Office. Circuit Judge Thomas Clark ruled early this year the office broke the state's Sunshine Law by denying the records, but fined the guilty parties just $500 each and awarded no damages to Bob WitbolsFeugen and Karen Turner, who paid $35,000 to win the right to public records.
An Independence Examiner editorial lamented the weakness of a law that purports to protect public information, but fines offenders little or nothing while punishing the winners by making them bear the high cost of litigation.
"One has to wonder what assurance the public has this improper behavior won't be repeated at a politician's whim," the Examiner opined.
Politicians for the past several years have received Sun questionnaires asking, "Should officeholders, unlike the public, get to use ignorance as an excuse for breaking open meetings and records laws?" This time, 15 out of 16 General Assembly candidates, with one abstention, agreed ignorance is not an acceptable excuse.
In the 34th Senatorial District contest, for example, an independent, a Democrat and a Republican all agreed no such excuse as "I did not know the law" is acceptable: Rep. Glenda Kelly, D-St. Joseph, answered with a simple, "No"; Eric Pendell, I-Kansas City-North, answered, "No, officeholders are also citizens and should be required to follow the same laws they passed for the public"; and Rep. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, made the decision unanimous, stating, "No, I strongly support open meetings and records laws. We are conducting the public’s business. They have a right to know what we're doing."
The message from the Northland's present and future General Assembly members is encouraging, said Jean Maneke, Kansas City, legal counsel to the Missouri Press Association.
"I hope that the public, and candidates for public office, are becoming more sensitized to how important this law is for the public," Maneke said.
Despite the almost universal denunciation from local candidates of ignorance as an excuse for government officials to break the law, whether any vote to stop the practice will come from the eight General Assembly candidates who will be elected next month remains Unclear. Past General Assembly members have been lobbied by local government associations that do not want stronger fines.
"We desperately need fines, that will make people realize they can't violate the law," Maneke said.
Government leaders have opposed meaningful fines -- the limit is $500 -- based on the suggestion that no one would serve on a school or water board if it meant they might be fined for breaking the state's open records and open meetings laws. In addition to low fines when government officials are sued, they use public funds to defend themselves while plaintiffs use their own money with little hope of recovering thousands of dollars, as occurred in the WitbolsFeugen case.
"Even though in past years we've had difficulty getting the fines increased, one, should continue to hope that the new candidates who are coming into office will have a greater understanding about why it is important to have higher fines and then ultimately we may be able to get that done," Maneke said.