Widespread secrecy in St. Louis County municipal governments, study finds
A new report is criticizing many local governments in the St. Louis area for a lack of transparency.
As documented in the nonprofit organization Better Together's "Transparency Report," the group attempted to obtain basic financial and operational information from dozens of area municipalities that should be publicly accessible under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
"That’s difficult when you have 115 different governments, but it becomes almost impossible when these governments go out of their way to put up roadblocks to receive publicly available information," said the Better Together's deputy director of community based studies, Marius Johnson-Malon.
Under the Sunshine Law, a city must respond to a public record request "as soon as possible, but in no event later than the end of the third business day following the date the request is received.” If a city requires more time for a "reasonable cause," it must detail why. The law also allows municipalities to charge for copying and labor costs involved in fulfilling the request.
Better Together's study found that some cities responded quickly and at no or low cost. But most cities failed to respond in a timely manner or charged excessive fees.
“Sometimes we were met with different requests for money up to $2,000 to provide the information we were looking for," Johnson-Malone said. "Sometimes people would say it was going to take up to six months, and that is in contrast to some municipalities that got us the information on the same day they received the request and provided it for free.”
Johnson-Malone said compliance varied widely, noting there was "frequent disregard" for fulfilling Sunshine requests. For example, a request to Bellefontaine Neighbors took 85 days to complete, costing $770.90; in contrast, Bel-Ridge fulfilled the request in five days at no cost.
So far, Better Together said it has spent almost $15,909.30 to collect the municipal data. Its study found a St. Louis area citizen would have to spend on average more than $100 to get municipal data through the state’s Sunshine Law.
"It is incredibly difficult to get basic information on how our local governments operate on a day-to-day basis and how they spend taxpayer money," he said. "We, as an organization, have fortunately been able to spend $16,000 and tons of staff time. I can’t imagine what it would be like for the average citizen."
The study also found that several St. Louis County cities had still not fulfilled the Sunshine request after more than 130 days, including: Berkeley, Beverly Hills, Clayton, Country Club Hills, Hazelwood, Hillsdale, Kinloch, Lakeshire, Manchester, Pine Lawn, St. Ann, University City and Vinita Park.
Johnson-Malone said while some cities may simply lack the manpower to comply with the Sunshine Law, others were being "obstructionist." He said lack of transparency threatens the democratic process.
"We’ve heard time and time again, particularly after the events in Ferguson, that one of the answers and one of the things that need to happen is citizens need to be more engaged with what’s going on with their local governments and what we’re finding is that is not an easy task," Johnson-Malone said. "They make it very difficult for those who do want to engage to get the information they need to be informed.”
Better Together's study suggests cities should commit to providing publicly available information on their websites. It cites as model examples a statewide online portal of municipal information in Indianapolis; a central clearinghouse of government information in Louisville; and a document center on Ballwin's city website.
At least one legislator has considered the issue of transparency. State Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Cole County, has introduced a bill in the legislature that would require "every county and municipality to establish and operate a government website" with specific information such as meeting agendas, minutes and basic financial documents, available to the public. Johnson-Malone said if passed, the bill would "represent a major step forward in transparency."