Amending the Missouri Open Records Act to allow government agencies to withhold more information from the public – and charge more for all documents handed in – is one of Gov. Mike Parson’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session.
Among the changes, which were outlined in a presentation to Parson’s firm that was obtained by The Independent via a request for open cases, is a proposal to allow government agencies to charge fees for the time lawyers spend reviewing. records requested by the public.
Such a change would overturn a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling against Parson’s office, which held that attorney review time was not “research time” under the Sunshine Act and therefore could not. not be charged.
The presentation, which was prepared for a meeting of Parson’s cabinet on November 10, included slides on Parson’s legislative goals, which was called “G57.”
The slide on the proposed changes to the Sunshine Act called the reform proposals “good government” and described the changes as those that “would benefit political subdivisions, legislature and state government.”
But transparency advocates say the changes would weaken the public’s ability to hold public institutions to account.
“If they are successful in accomplishing this wish list of changes, it will be incredibly difficult and costly for Missourians to gain access to information about what their government is doing,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri. , a libertarian non-profit that campaigns for government transparency.
Kelli Jones, a spokesperson for the governor, did not respond to a request for comment.
“Important to him”
A handful of bills have already been tabled for consideration in the 2022 legislative session that address various changes outlined in Parson’s presentation to cabinet.
State Representative Bruce DeGroot R-Ellisville once again introduced legislation to protect voters’ email addresses and phone numbers from public disclosure if they were submitted for the sole purpose of receiving ballots. information or other alerts.
The bill, which passed both the Senate and the House last year, was ultimately vetoed by Parson, in part due to a subsequent court ruling relating to the Sunshine Act and provisions relating to the authority of the Office of the Children’s Advocate which were added later in the session.
This year’s bill includes many provisions already proposed, but it also includes new measures that DeGroot said were proposed by Parson’s office over the summer.
“I really liked the House version last year,” DeGroot said, “and then the governor came over to me, and obviously that was something that was important to him.”
DeGroot said it was not his intention to withhold information from the public. He hopes the bill will lead to a conversation about finding a “happy medium” between the information made available without overburdening government agencies.
“We need to have good investigative reporting on government, and that’s healthy, in my opinion,” DeGroot said. “On the other hand, some of these demands can sometimes get so onerous that they can cripple the government with frivolous demands.”
Lawyer review time
DeGroot’s bill includes a provision that allows a government agency to charge a member of the public the lowest paid lawyer hourly rate used to conduct research or review requested records.
Charging lawyers’ review time was among the proposals outlined in the firm’s presentation, which justified the change by saying that “every sunny answer has two legal questions; is the case responsive and is the case open. “
The time lawyers spend reviewing public records was previously a common charge that often resulted in huge costs for the public to obtain records.
However, in June, the Missouri Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Sunshine Law does not allow this type of charge. It’s a decision that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office recently cited in a Sunshine Law lawsuit asking for school records related to the curriculum.
If they are successful in accomplishing this wishlist for changes, it will be incredibly difficult and costly for Missourians to gain access to information about what their government is doing.
Dave Roland, Director of Legal Affairs at the Freedom Center of Missouri
The ruling stemmed from a case alleging Parson’s office improperly drafted records, charged exorbitant fees, and knowingly and willfully violated the state’s open records law. Since the June ruling, the governor’s office has reimbursed attorney fees paid by those whose claims were pending when the court’s ruling was issued.
This case was originally filed by Elad Gross, a lawyer and former Democratic candidate for attorney general. He argued that charging fees for lawyer’s examination time was illegal and said the state’s highest court had said it was.
“And now that governments have less of a way to really scare and deter ordinary people from accessing our own records, they’re trying to make it law in this state,” Gross said. “And I think it’s wrong.”
Roland said allowing such charges would be “catastrophic” for citizens ‘efforts to obtain public records, and said that if state law was changed to allow attorneys’ review time, it wouldn’t there would be no recourse to the courts as in Gross’ Cas.
Some of the categories of documents that the cabinet presentation described as exempt from public disclosure – such as the protection of voters’ personal information – lawmakers have proposed shutting down for years.
It is also an issue over which state lawmakers and the Parson administration have already been challenged.
In 2019, Schmitt’s office said Parson should stop citing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify removing the phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses of private citizens who contacted the governor’s office.
A 2019 lawsuit filed by Mark Pedroli, founder of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, challenges a House rule that allows lawmakers to redact files or withhold them altogether. The case is ongoing and a hearing is scheduled for later this month.
Jean Maneke, a lawyer for the Missouri Press Association, said she was disappointed with the governor’s office belief that measures to restrict access to public records are urgently needed to improve state government.
“Hiding government information is not going to increase public confidence in its leaders,” Maneke said.
In addition to some of the provisions that have come to attention in recent years – such as protecting information on customer utility bills and evacuation and lockdown procedures – DeGroot’s bill would also allow the shutdown. addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of job seekers, employees, customers and members of government agencies.
This same information could also be withheld from elected officials or foreign leaders if it compromised their security.
Transitional documents, which the bill defines as including drafts of documents, would not be considered public documents under the bill, and this would also redefine what counts as “public matter” or a public meeting.
Roland said the changes described in the cabinet presentation reveal “a general hostility of those in power to allow citizens to look over their shoulders.”
“I think this is a systemic problem and the Sunshine Law was designed to solve,” Roland said, later adding: “We certainly don’t need more barriers to transparency. of the government.”
Independent from Missouri is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported media network and donor coalition as a 501c (3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.