The Missouri General Assembly is headed in exactly the wrong direction on basic openness and transparency in state and local government.
Missouri’s open records and open meetings law – the Sunshine Law – is not as strong as it should be, but it rests on the assumption of openness, the assumption that your government’s documents and meetings are open and readily available to the public. There are, of course, exceptions such as a city council or school board closing part of a meeting to discuss the purchase price of a piece of land or legal strategy in a lawsuit.
Legislation that has passed the Missouri House in this session would close nearly all records, even at the local level. It would close documents “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” and have “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”
That’s just about everything.
The Senate has a bill that might charitably be described as slightly less bad. It would close any record related to a constituent – however that might be defined.
Missouri voters last fall closed a major loophole in the Sunshine Law. In approving the “Clean Missouri” proposal, they voted to have the Sunshine Law apply to the General Assembly, which has long granted itself an exemption to the rules it expects local governing bodies to follow.
Leaders in the General Assembly have expressed a clear desire to overturn much of Clean Missouri, especially the plan for a more reasoned and less partisan method of drawing legislative districts. Legislators also resist having to open up records.
Their argument is narrow and off base. They say constituents reach out for help on all manner of issues, and sometimes those emails and letters might mention a victim of abuse or a family member caught up in drugs or drinking. That constituent wouldn’t want to see that name or situation in the paper or on social media. Or an address or Social Security number.
That kind of information, however, is routinely “redacted” – that is, blacked out – when public records are released. This argument is simply bogus.
Let’s be clear: If a lobbyist sends an email to a legislator, that thread of communications needs to be open to the public. If a citizen does it, it’s the same thing. This is all part of public debate over public policy set by officials elected by and accountable to the public. Secrecy should be the rare exception, not the rule.
Legislators should be reforming Sunshine rules, not gutting them. It’s come to light that the governor’s office under Eric Greitens, the attorney general’s office under Josh Hawley and the Missouri State Highway Patrol in recent years all have used apps that send and quickly delete text messages, leaving no trail of accountability. That only has one purpose: To operate in secret.
That should not be allowed in government, and the General Assembly should flatly ban the use of these in apps by state and local entities.
The assumption of openness and accountability in government is vital. That so many legislators have an impulse in the opposite direction is distressing.