Sunshine Law may or may not apply to SGA, but should be followed regardless

Apr 17th, 2009 | By | Category: Commentary, Opinions

Jason McGill

Assistant Editor

The question has been bugging me.  Is the Student Government Association subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law?  In the article I wrote for the April 8th issue, I made sure to say that SGA wasn’t in compliance with the law, and not say violating the law, because I wasn’t sure whether the law applied.

The law describes several types of “Public Governmental Bodies” which basically breaks down as any organ of the state or any body given authority by the state to spend tax money.  The law also specifically mentions the governing bodies of state universities, such as our Board of Governors, as subject to the law.

SGA is not part of the Missouri state government.  It’s a creation of the school to represent the students.  However, it seemed to me that SGA does spend public money in the form of the state’s grant to the school.

The mystery lingered until I happened to be reading the CJB Policies and Procedures (because I’m a hopeless geek).  One section of the policies reads, “As per a decision made by the Attorney General in 1989, the Student Government Association and all branches thereof (executive, legislative, and judicial) are not subject to the Missouri Sunshine law.”  So I guess that settles it.

Not quite.

After wandering lost and confused on the Missouri Attorney General’s website, I found that the opinion CJB is referring to was rendered in 1987, not 1989.  If someone can find an ’89 opinion on the site related to SGA, please let me know.

Also, the AG issues opinions, not “decisions.”  Decisions are made by courts.  You’d think the CJB would realize the distinction.

The opinion says that SGA is not a Public Governmental Body unless it acts with delegated authority from the Board of Governors or exercises de facto authority with the tacit approval of the Board.

The attorney general is pretty clear on his stand, but his opinion is just that, an opinion.  A very well informed opinion, but an opinion nonetheless.  It doesn’t have the force of law.  The only way to find out for sure is to bring the matter before a judge and have the judge interpret the law.  That would be a “decision.”

And there is language in the Sunshine Law describing “advisory committees” at the direction of a Public Governing Body who recommend policy revisions on expenditure of public funds.  I think an argument could be made that SGA was acting as such an “advisory committee” when it recommended the sustainability fee to the Board of Governors, and in other such actions that involve public money.

So I think it’s a bit misleading for CJB to say that the Sunshine Law doesn’t apply.  It would be more apt to say it probably doesn’t apply, or we believe it doesn’t apply.

Ultimately, whether SGA is or is not subject to Sunshine isn’t the point.  My new question is, why not just adopt the Sunshine Law standards voluntarily?

They really aren’t all that strict.  The law mainly requires that all records be made available and that a custodian of records be responsible for handling record requests.  It also has some other basic requirements about posting meeting times and the format of meeting minutes.  That’s it.

You can dream up other punishments besides the $1,000 fines outlined in the law.  Just so long as you have a commitment to keeping a complete, continuous record of operation.

This is the easy stuff, folks.  Anyone in government should want to become more open, it’s not controversial.  A good step in that direction would be for SGA to embrace the spirit of the Sunshine Law, and not hide behind a twenty year old opinion from the Attorney General.

(That Attorney General, by the way, was William L. Webster.  Six years after he issued this opinion, he pleaded guilty and got two years on charges of embezzlement and fraud.)

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