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Missouri passed its Sunshine Law in 1973 with the goal of ensuring government transparency and accountability. The law promotes a liberal interpretation of transparency, encouraging governmental bodies to keep all meetings and records open to the public. It’s also a reminder to our elected officeholders that their job is to work with and on behalf of the people of Missouri — but that can’t happen without public participation at all levels of government.
The interests of government and the people it serves can align in surprising ways. Take, for example, the recent Boone County Commission decision to place the county roads and bridge tax on the August ballot. Every ten years, county voters decide whether to continue paying a one-half-cent sales tax to fund road and bridge maintenance; with the tax up for renewal this year, the commissioners floated the idea of making the tax permanent. Members of the public came to the commission meetings to their voice their concerns, and several suggested they would actively campaigning against the tax if it became a permanent proposal. The commissioners responded to the public feedback and placed the tax renewal on the ballot with a ten-year sunset, just like before.
So who won the battle? One of benefits of public participation is that both sides — the government and the people — walk away winners. The stakeholders had their concerns heard by their government, and the commission gained allies to speak in favor of the tax as the election approaches.
That’s public participation at work. Because of the Sunshine Law, public meetings are, well, public — they’re scheduled openly and everyone’s invited.
But don’t conflate the ability to attend a meeting with actual access to that meeting. Policy makers are people, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people don’t always want to defend their opinions in a public setting or ask for new input on an issue that they think they’ve already solved. And if we let these attitudes persist, we see public meetings scheduled for inconvenient times (who has Tuesday afternoons free?) or with limited time for public comment. These kinds of meetings are technically complying with the Sunshine Law, even though public participation suffers. And isn’t that the whole point of the law?
Thankfully, there are some proven methods for increasing public participation. The more our governments — at all levels — demonstrate that they value public input, the more engaged and collaborative our community becomes.
The first and most important element is that governments accept that public input does indeed have value. Policy research has shown time and again that the invitation and acceptance of public comment must be authentic to be meaningful. This might require some re-education of public officials, encouraging them to be cooperative participants rather than expert managers.
Second, public officials need to make a concerted effort in planning where and when the meeting takes place. Scheduling a 7 p.m. meeting versus a 2 p.m. meeting will not only draw far more people, it would also acknowledges stakeholders’ availability. Public officials should be thinking about every possible angle of access — for example, holding a meeting in a non-ADA compliant clubhouse versus an accessible public library also limits who will be able to participate. The same is true for the geographic locale of public meetings. For example, the city’s neighborhood meetings held across central and northern Columbia this past year occurred in venues actually located in the neighborhoods themselves.
Finally, these events need to be publicized and advertised. Governmental bodies should publish meeting notices online, on social media, in newspapers, and any other common space frequented by the target audience. Personalized invitation phone calls are an especially effective way to spread the word and encourage attendance. This kind of outreach demonstrates commitment to public collaboration, which should always be the goal of any meeting with citizens.
Anyone that’s had the good fortune of attending a local city council meeting, planning and zoning meeting, or county commission meeting knows that public comment can be the liveliest agenda item. And it should be — that’s the part that makes public meetings so valuable. Any person can attend a government meeting and provide commentary, levy criticism, or raise concern. That’s a literal example of people speaking truth to power. Differences of opinion breed creative problem solving and more responsive policies. We should all be encouraging, not avoiding, inclusion of the everyone who’s affected by government decisions.
Brianna Lennon is a former assistant attorney general and elections integrity coordinator for the State of Missouri. She practices at the Law Office of Mike Campbell and blogs about civics for CBT.