Sunshine Law is just that: the law

As I wrote a few weeks ago, investigations and penalties against elected officials, especially the idea of removing one from office, should be a grave and extreme proposition. It should only be considered under the most egregious of circumstances and only when all other means of dealing with the situation have been exhausted.

An investigating committee looked into a number of allegations against former Ward 3 Alderman David Dickerson. The report, which was presented to the full board last week was, to say the least, shocking. I have almost always disapproved of Dickerson’s actions on the board. I disagreed with him on virtually all of his votes and his comments from the dais. He always seemed more concerned with petty issues and failed to recognize the big pictures or what was truly in the best interest of the city. I have always believed that and I haven’t changed my mind. But there is a big difference between disagreement and misconduct in office, a charge which the investigating committee seemed to have presented clearly.

Since Dickerson resigned, we did not hear a full dialogue about the charges nor any defense he may have offered, so we can only look at the charges and shake our heads. If the allegations were indeed true, discipline was indeed in order and removal from office would not seem extreme. Some will try to paint this as some type of political move, but this appears to be a situation which should have been dealt with regardless of who was sharing seats on the board with him. It would be fair to say anyone who would had an inkling of the charges he faced and failed to investigate would have been derelict in their duties. It is time to move on from this episode, except for one issue left dangling.

That issue is the city’s offering Dickerson a hearing in “closed” session or in “open” session. There was absolutely no basis for such a hearing to ever be held in closed session. The Missouri Sunshine Law is very specific about when a governing board can go into closed session. A board can go into executive session to meet with its attorney about pending litigation; leasing, purchase or sale of real estate when public knowledge might adversely affect the legal consideration; or for personnel discussions when discussing, hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting a particular employee. This case fell under none of those topics as an alderman is not an employee, but instead an elected official.

We in the news world clamor frequently about the Sunshine Law. And to the public our outrage should be shared. The point of the Sunshine Law is not an attempt to bully governmental officials or to embarrass or harass them, but to allow the public to see exactly how their government is performing. It is not enough to be told after the fact what has happened. The public needs to be informed about what is happening, why and what it means to us. The purpose is to keep our government accountable.

The very fact a closed meeting was even floated should cause us all to be concerned. The city attorney, the city administrator and even the elected officials should know better. Maybe its time to remind not only the Harrisonville board, but all cities, fire districts, school boards, police departments and everyone else that the Sunshine Law is not an option, it is the law. And we at The Tribune will continue to push for total transparency.

There was also a question whether the investigating committee’s report should be public record. I requested a copy of the report and a version with witness names redacted was presented. I question if the redaction was actually allowable, but at the time I accepted it as a token of good faith, plus it provided a pretty clear view of the charges, even with the names blacked out.

I sincerely hope it was not anyone’s conscious decision to attempt to skirt the Sunshine Law, but there obviously appears to be flaws in the city’s code book if the closed session is made an option. It makes me wonder what other ordinances or policies in the city’s code book might also be in error. I am also concerned what other documents may have been “protected” which should have been open to the public. We count on our elected officials and city staff, including the administrator and city attorney, to make sure all the rules of public disclosure are obeyed, but as we learned last week, we can’t always assume they are.

On a final note: while the news of a COVID-19 vaccine is encouraging, it’s not here yet, but as the numbers are telling us, the Coronavirus virus is very present in our community. Please wear a mask.


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