Opinion

Kyle Troutman: We the people

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A bit of news — which may seem unexciting to some — hit my desk this week, making me pause and think.

Spurred by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Monett Mayor Mike Brownsberger signed a proclamation naming Sept. 17-23 as Constitution Week in Monett. It urges residents to “reaffirm the ideals of the Framers of the Constitution had in 1787 by vigilantly protecting the freedoms guaranteed to us through this guardian of our liberties, remembering that lost rights may never be regained.”

The Constitution is widely regarded as one of the greatest documents in human history. Just hearing “we the people” is enough to stiffen the hair on the back of red-blooded Americans’ necks.

It laid the framework for a new world society, one that echoed the Declaration of Independence and valued individual freedom and liberty above all else, establishing a system by which the government would run as an extension of its citizens, elected by them and working for them.

Many in our area might say that ideal has become lost in the United States of today. They’d say there are too many career politicians who put money over the interests of the people, too much division that works against public interest, and too much power in the hands of those who quietly abuse it.

But, what can we do?

State Rep. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, the State Senator-elect for the 29th District, has campaigned tirelessly on upholding the Constitution. Arguably, it’s what helped him win the Republican primary in August to go unopposed in November for the post.

Moon has advocated for years for states to band together and make their voices heard through a loudspeaker. For at least the past five years, Moon has pushed Missouri to file an Article 5 provision that would call for a convention of states. This body, authorized under the Constitution, could convene if requested by 34 states passing such a petition in a single legislative year. Hundreds of such petitions have passed in state legislatures over the years, but not enough to ever call a convention.

Is this the route to go to enact change on a federal level? It could be. But most of the push for this kind of action was during the Obama years and by Republicans. I doubt as many would be keen on stirring up a convention with Trump in office.

When I think of where I can best have an effect on government, I always think more local. What can be done at the city or county level to expand liberties and freedom? Or, what is being done at those levels that is infringing on our rights?

As a journalist, many times when I think of infringement, it comes back to the right to know, protected by the Sunshine Law.

Coming from Arkansas, where the Freedom of Information Act has a much wider expanse, I am continually disappointed in how little the Sunshine Law actually shines.

Things that stick out in my mind are the 72-hour window before having to divulge a closed-session vote result and the fact that police reports are, most of the time, not attainable through the Law. Most often this is because cases will still be considered “open” until processed through the court, which renders them untimely and useless. Or, some records may be deemed “closed” and not attainable. Many times, we are handicapped by a prosecutor’s decision to not press charges, leaving us with a known incident but no way to report it since reports are not obtainable.

The 72-hour rule is most largely a nuisance when trying to report things in a timely manner. Often, an entity will hold out on the paper for the 72 hours, but word of mouth will spread and “break” a story anyway. And, many times in these cases, the “telephone game” cliche applies and facts are misconstrued or totally wrong.

There are other cases of abuse that could be classified as ignorance, some of which is willful and some of which isn’t.

One example of that can be found within the last month. At the Aug. 13 meeting of the Freistatt Village Board of Trustees, board members entered an executive session for legal matters following the open agenda. In that session, legal matters were the initial topic, as the board voted to cut off all conversations with Randy and Bonnie Davidson, who had previously sued the village, as advised by their attorney until they hear back regarding a motion Davidson made after his suit was dismissed. This was a fine use of the Sunshine Law and executive sessions.

However, after that discussion, the board members took three more votes — one to remove a camera from the office, one to give a board member access to computer files as a secondary to the village clerk and a final one to fix a water leak.

None of these votes pertain to legal matters and deprived the handful of those in the gallery knowledge of village matters that should be discussed in open meeting.

This begs the question, not only in Freistatt, how many non-executive session matters are discussed, but not voted on, at our local school board meetings or city councils in an effort to keep sensitive information from the public.

If you don’t think this is happening, I can guarantee you are wrong. Time and time again, governmental bodies abuse these powers, and it’s an affront to their residents’ right to know.

So, as we enter Constitution Week, my reaffirmation of the ideals the framers had in mind is to celebrate and advocate an open and transparent government, at all levels, and I hope you agree.

Kyle Troutman has served as the editor of The Monett Times since 2014. In 2017, he was named William E. James/Missouri Outstanding Young Journalist for daily newspapers. He may be reached at 417-235-3135 or editor@monett-times.com.