Violating Missouri’s public records and Sunshine Laws could become more expensive, and even bring criminal penalties, if legislation introduced in the Missouri House last week passes.
We hope it does, but the odds against passage appear to be long. Bills introduced this late in the legislative session have a hard time getting committee votes and full consideration in both legislative chambers. Local governments are wary of stronger open records and meetings laws and are a strong lobbying force in Jefferson City. And debate over Gov. Eric Greitens’ legal troubles could roil the remaining 11 weeks in the Legislature’s session.
On the other hand, there’s potential political gain if the Legislature’s Republican leaders decide to make this good-government legislation a priority. Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, whose office was involved in crafting the legislation, is running for the U.S. Senate. The attorney general’s office would acquire more power to investigate violations and offer guidance to local officials confused about compliance.
The Sunshine Law was passed in 1973 as Watergate was demonstrating what can happen when government operates in secret. Its intent couldn’t be more clear: “It is the public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.”
Furthermore, the law is to be “liberally construed and exceptions strictly construed.”
And yet governments at all levels often don’t comply. They dither and delay in turning over records, sometimes charging outrageous fees for copying them. They hold informal meetings by phone or email. They regularly manage to lose or destroy records.
The penalties for non-compliance are weak, usually amounting to a small fine on the rare occasion when the state attorney general pursued the case.
House Bills 2523 and 2524, sponsored respectively by Reps. David Gregory, R-Sunset Hills, and Jean Evans, R-Manchester, would change that.
The bills are identical, which Evans said was intended to call attention to the issue. The bills would strengthen records-retention and -handling provisions in Chapter 109 of state law, doubling the potential fines for violation to $10,000. The issue of records retention is currently the focus of an investigation by Hawley into Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff.
The bills then go on to address the Sunshine Law. Potential fines for violations would increase to $10,000. Deliberately charging unreasonable fees for public records would become a Class B misdemeanor with penalties of up to six months in jail.
Sunshine Law requirements can be overwhelming for smaller government units. The bills would create an Office of Transparency to provide guidance on compliance. It could also pursue civil investigations to ensure compliance.
Citizens have a right to know how their government operates. This legislation would bolster that right. Legislative leaders should make this a priority.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.