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Missouri bill would peel back the Sunshine Law, make open records more costly

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has a new priority for the 2022 legislative session: amend the state Sunshine Law to withhold more information from the public. He also wants to charge the public fees for the time government lawyers spend reviewing open records requests.

The effort — first reported by the Missouri Independent — has sparked backlash from transparency advocates, who say the changes would make it harder for the public to access open records and hold government agencies accountable.

Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that charging the public attorney fees to review records for Sunshine requests was illegal under the state’s current Sunshine Law. Amending the state statute would be a way to get around the ruling. State Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Ellisville, has introduced a bill to modify the Sunshine Law toward that end.

Gov. Mike Parson speaks to St. Louis Public Radio on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in his office at the Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson speaks to St. Louis Public Radio on Jan. 5 in his office at the Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City.

That could mean records cost a lot more.

“Those fees can become really big, really fast,” Missouri Independent Editor-in-Chief Jason Hancock said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “Those are usually the lion's share of the cost when you're trying to get public records, or at least they used to be prior to the Supreme Court ruling.”

After the ruling, Hancock said, Parson’s office began reimbursing people who’d previously paid the attorney’s fees.

DeGroot’s bill also redefines what is considered a meeting and makes it easier for agencies to destroy public records.

“It actually makes the Sunshine Law significantly more complex. It creates a lot more reasons that an attorney might find to treat records as closed,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that promotes government transparency. And that, in turn, could increase the number of hours government attorneys spend reviewing records, driving up the cost.

Roland said closed records are bad for transparency and good for corruption.

“If we lose the hard-won transparency that we've had for decades now, in the state of Missouri, it's going to be difficult to get it back,” he said.

DeGroot did not respond to a request for comment.

Peeling back the Sunshine Law would make open records more costly

In the past, lawmakers have tried to pass similar legislation revising the Sunshine Law and failed. But Hancock said that this year’s legislation, with Parson’s support, has a greater chance of passing.

He stressed that the issue is not just about journalists.

“I think a lot of folks might be dismissive and think that this is a reporter complaining that they're getting charged too much, or they're getting the runaround or they're not getting exactly what they want for their story,” Hancock said. “But the vast majority of records requests aren't going to be a reporter asking the governor for information, it's going to be private citizens.

“Essentially, you're shutting the door on people's access to their own government.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.