Missouri lawmakers buck the will of the public, vote to keep many records secret

February 14, 2019 11:00

Journalists raise hell all the time when government bodies stall, or outright reject, open records requests. In the state of Missouri, however, it was the public that overwhelmingly instructed the state legislature to be more transparent when it comes to such files.
In November, voters – by a 62% to 38% margin – passed the “Clean Missouri” amendment to the state constitution, which requires, among other things, that most state legislative records be open to the public.
The state already has one of the strongest public meetings and records statutes in the nation, the “Sunshine Law,” enacted in 1973, during the depths of Watergate. But even it keeps the bulk of state legislative records private.
Last week, the Missouri House, the lower chamber of the state’s bicameral General Assembly, passed House Bill 445, which effectively gutted not just the intent of “Clean Missouri” as it relates to state lawmakers, but adopted an amendment that we and others believe will also gut the “Sunshine Law.” Specifically:
Several new exemptions to the open records law … [were] created including … communications involving advice, opinions, and recommendations concerning the deliberative decision-making process of any public governmental body.
Many of the lawmakers who supported the bill, and specifically the amendment eviscerating the state’s longstanding open meetings and records law, claimed their intention was to protect the privacy of constituents. The bill would allow government bodies to withhold “personal telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, and home addresses of any individuals.” (Never mind that Missouri state law already keeps Social Security numbers private, for obvious reasons.)
Here’s the problem with that provision: How are public officials – or indeed the public itself – supposed to know whether someone writing a city councilmember, county commissioner or state lawmaker, is a real constituent or an out-of-state lobbyist? Or a special interest group?
And what about crime records? Missouri state law already allows law enforcement agencies to withhold from the public certain information regarding crimes necessary to help solve them, but not the locations of crimes, or traffic or other kinds of accidents. This sweeping new bill could require police to withhold the addresses of crime and accident scenes. Don’t you think people have a right to know if a crime has been committed in their own neighborhood?
The potential implications are even more far-reaching than that, as detailed over the weekend by a Springfield News-Leader editor.
As incredible as this all seems, even more laughable is the fact that the sponsor of the amendment, suburban St. Louis Rep. Nick Schroer, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he didn’t realize his legislation applies to local governments! He thought it only affected the legislature.
The sponsor of House Bill 445, suburban St. Louis Rep. Shamed Dogan, told The Kansas City Star he thinks Schroer’s amendment is an “overreach.”
Thankfully, it’s not too late for more sensible heads to prevail in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The bill now goes to the state senate, where the majority floor leader has pledged to revise some of the House’s “Sunshine Law”-related revisions.
It would be a blatant case of watchdog neglect, however, if journalists and members of the public sat idly by and left the senate to its own devices.
RTDNA urges journalists and members of the general public throughout Missouri to contact their local state senators to demand they correct the errors of the House and uphold the spirit and the letter of both the “Clean Missouri” amendment and the “Sunshine Law.”
Or, reach out to Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, whose district, by the way, includes Columbia, Mo., the home of the University of Missouri and the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism.
Click here to email Sen. Rowden.
Call the senator’s office at 573-751-3931.
Send a letter to the senator’s office:        
Sen. Caleb Rowden
201 W. Capitol Ave., Room 433
Jefferson City, MO 65101
Missouri is the Show Me State, after all. Now is the time for Missourians to show them – the people they elected to do business in their names – that they will not stand for the public’s affairs to be conducted through a shroud.