Joplin Globe. March 12, 2021.
Editorial: Celebrate Sunshine Week by committing to open government
Today kicks off the annual observance of Sunshine Week, a time when we celebrate our state’s open-records and open-meetings laws and their objective to help us maintain government transparency.
The Sunshine Law in Missouri is a collection of state statutes that outline the types of governmental bodies that must be open to the public, and which types of information they must make public. Locally, bodies such as our city councils, county commissions and school boards are subject to the Sunshine Law, and any member of the public has the right to request information from them.
It’s because of the Sunshine Law that we can know how much we pay for elected officials’ salaries, how individual members of public bodies vote on issues and whether taxes on a specific property are being paid. It’s because of the Sunshine Law that we can go to government meetings, observe how they’re conducted and watch taxpayer-funded business taking place in real time. Open government is good government; decisions in a democracy should not be made in secret.
But this week is also a reminder that we must keep constant vigilance to ensure that these laws are preserved, followed and upheld, not weakened or diminished. There are always threats to your right to an open government. Here are just a few that have surfaced in Missouri in the past few weeks:
• A bill passed by the Missouri House would put a pause on open-records requests when public agencies are closed, which The Associated Press reported is being suggested as an attempt to ease pressure on governments during emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. But the measure also would cover state lawmakers who close their offices for most of the year while the Legislature is not in session. That could mean Sunshine Law requests are ignored for months.
• Governors, public health directors and committees advising them have been holding key discussions behind closed doors, including debates about who should be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and how best to distribute them. A review by The Associated Press found that advisory committees created to help determine how to prioritize limited doses have held closed meetings in at least 13 states, including Missouri. The lack of transparency raises the risk that some decisions will be grounded in politics rather than public health and that well-connected industries could receive special treatment while the concerns of marginalized groups are ignored.
• More public bodies than ever are livestreaming their meetings because of safety concerns amid the pandemic. But in many cases, it has become harder for people who are watching from a computer, TV or smartphone to actually talk with their elected officials. An Associated Press survey of state legislative bodies found that most no longer allow people inside their chambers to observe. And at many local meetings convened remotely, the only avenue for public input is a written comment.
This week, because open government is good government, let’s commit to keeping it that way in Missouri.
Kansas City Star. March 11, 2021.
Editorial: Finally, Missouri moves on abusive ‘reform school,’ but don’t credit AG Eric Schmitt
Wednesday, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced more than 100 felony charges against the owners and operators of a now-closed “reform school” in southwest Missouri.
Boyd and Stephanie Householder, who owned the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch and Boarding School near Humansville, now face criminal allegations of abuse and assault.
But the fact is, Schmitt deserves little credit for this case. He’s been the attorney general for more than two years. It should not have taken this long for local authorities to reach out for his help, and for his office to respond.
Now that the charges have been filed, however, we should learn more about the catastrophe at Circle of Hope, in which much of official Missouri appears complicit.
The Householders, like all criminal suspects, are entitled to the presumption of innocence, which both have claimed. At the same time, the public evidence against the pair — including testimony from the girls who spent time at the home — seems overwhelming.
The alleged abuse is shocking. Routine physical and psychological punishment. Sexual assault. Improper restraints. The list goes on, and is sickening. If they’re found guilty, the Householders should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
But the prosecution of the two should not end the inquiry into the Circle of Hope ranch, and other facilities like it in Missouri. In fact, the charges should mark the beginning of a thorough examination of how so-called “reform schools” operate in the state.
We should start with law enforcement authorities, who either knew of the alleged abuse and ignored it for years, aiding and abetting the conduct, or didn’t know and were derelict in their duties. That includes police officers and sheriffs deputies in Cedar County, and wherever else these homes operate.
Ignorance cannot be an excuse. The Star has led on the reporting of these concerns, and other news outlets have followed. If reporters can find victims of abuse, so can law enforcement. Missouri must know why this school and others were allowed to proliferate.
State oversight officials have claimed some knowledge of the problems at the ranch, and other similar operations, but say they’ve been unable to act because the schools’ claims of religious affiliation preclude licensing and serious regulation.
We should also know what Eric Schmitt knew, and when he knew it.
To their belated credit, some members of the Missouri legislature have stepped forward to propose regulation of the schools, and an accounting of them. That work should continue, and a bill providing for real oversight should be on the governor’s desk by the end of this year’s session.
A hearing on one such measure, HB 557, was scheduled for Thursday.
Missouri has a long history of excluding religious enterprises from serious supervision, claiming First Amendment protection. It’s ridiculous. There is nothing religious or holy — or constitutionally protected — about the rape, abuse and sodomy of young people.
Those who would engage in such criminal behavior cannot see the state as a sanctuary.
In December, The Star reported that at least seven schools moved to Missouri after abuse investigations in other states. Four other schools opened here because of minimal oversight. That isn’t an accident. The schools are drawn to locations where mistreatment is often overlooked.
“The state of Missouri is a breeding ground for these places,” boarding schools investigator Charles Kennedy told The Star for that article. “It’s a hotbed. There’s no oversight, and they try to hide behind the First Amendment.”
Finally, the charges in the Circle of Hope case should serve as a warning to parents considering sending their children to similar facilities. The stories of dozens of former residents are haunting and tragic.
Most of Missouri — law enforcement, prosecutors, regulators, investigators, legislators — failed these children. It is a stain on the state, and should shame all of us.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 14, 2021.
Editorial: Missouri GOP wants to make it easier to deceive voters and harder for them to speak
Missouri House Republicans last week moved to prevent judges from keeping them honest in the wording they use on ballot measures. This came on the same day those lawmakers demonstrated why that oversight is needed, passing a measure that would make it harder for voters to amend the state constitution — a measure whose wording was clearly designed to downplay that impact.
The issue stems from the voters’ overwhelming approval in 2018 of the Clean Missouri ballot initiative, which created a nonpartisan method for redrawing Missouri legislative districts. Ruling Republicans, who count on political gerrymandering to hold onto power, came back last year with another ballot measure that successfully repealed those redistricting reforms.
But the ballot language they sought to put before the voters downplayed that controversial repeal provision, leading instead with a more popular part of the measure that bans lobbying gifts. Two courts saw through the ruse and rewrote the language to more accurately reflect what the referendum would do.
Voters nonetheless narrowly passed that referendum, but Republicans aren’t taking any chances going forward. The House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to House Bill 850, which would prevent judges in the future from correcting deceptive ballot language.
State law says ballot language must be an “impartial statement of the purposes of the proposed measure,” which is what the courts were enforcing. Rep. John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, sponsor of the legislation to strip judges of that authority, says that backstop is unnecessary because “we do a pretty good job of passing legislation.”
Oh, really? Does that include the deceptive ballot language on a different bill that the same House preliminarily approved earlier on the same day?
That bill would require that passage of ballot measures amending the state constitution must win approval from two-thirds of the state’s voters, rather than a simple majority. It’s not mysterious why Republicans would want to make it harder for voters to overrule legislators, which they’ve done in recent years on issues like medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and ethics reform.
And how would the bill’s ballot language explain to voters that they would be voting to limit their own power in future referendums? By leading with a statement saying only U.S. citizens can vote — which is already the law and is irrelevant to the main change the measure would impose. In other words, these legislators are once again trying to distract voters from the true nature of the ballot measure they’d be approving. This on the very day they separately moved to prevent courts from correcting such deceptions.
To review: The Legislature’s Republican majority wants to make it harder for voters to challenge their draconian policies via referendum, while making it easier for lawmakers themselves to deceive those voters about what’s on ballot measures. This is what it looks like when an entire political party decides it doesn’t trust the voters anymore. The voters should return the sentiment.