Sunshine law doesn’t glow in most local governments

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A newly released audit shows an alarming lack of transparency in local municipalities and government across the state. Two out of three local governments failed to comply with Sunshine Law requests filed with their offices.

In a conference Tuesday morning, State Auditor Nicole Galloway released her office’s findings, saying that local governments need to do a better job in terms of meeting their obligations for transparency.

Galloway and her staff sent open records request letters to more than 300 local government entities across the state, and found many of those entities to be in violation of the law.

“Overall, the results were extremely disappointing,” Galloway said. “They demonstrate that we have a long way to go to improve government transparency.”

The intention of this audit was to see how local governments handled a request for records made by regular citizen of Missouri.

“My office regularly receives complaints related to access of public information,” Galloway said. “These are public records that citizens request. Citizens have a right to access this information. When government shuts out citizens from information on their government and how decisions are made on citizens’ behalf, it has a chilling effect on how citizens view their government.”

To do this, Galloway’s team sent letters to 326 randomly chosen entities, including counties, cities, school districts, as well as a variety of special taxing districts across the state. Only 309 were delivered, as the U.S. Postal Service did not confirm the delivery of 17 letters.

The letter asked the officials to provide a copy of the minutes from the last 2015 meeting, as well as the agenda and notice. It also asked for the name and contact information for the custodian of records, and asked if there were any policies or ordinances regarding the recording of public meetings, which they also asked for a copy of.

The letters were sent out on August 2, 2016 without any official letterhead in order to submit a request as the average citizen would. Under the Sunshine Law, the local governments would have had three days to acknowledge or respond to the request.

“We purposely created the request to be simple, be inexpensive, and to facilitate a timely response,” Galloway said.

According to the audit, 37 percent of the entities failed to respond within the 72-hour period. Galloway said that some of those eventually responded after the deadline, but to date, 16 percent have not responded at all. The audit shows that 261 local government entities responded, but of those, only 91 provided everything the letter requested. 61 of those responses arrived after the passing of the three-day deadline.

Four political subdivisions denied the request, saying they needed clarification for the purpose of the request or to know what the information requested was being used for. A letter from Dunklin County asked for the person who requested the records to appear in person to get the requested documents, saying they wanted to “insure these records are in the proper hands.”

Another alarming issue discovered by Galloway’s team was the fees being charged for the research and documents. The auditor said that with the records being recent and as simple as the ones they requested, the costs should have been minimal. The letter sent out requested for the waiving of any fees. If those fees could not be waived, the political subdivision was asked to provide an advance notice for any fees exceeding $10. The audit shows some of the governments requested “unreasonably high dollar amounts” to provide those records – the Mid-Continent Public Library asked for more than $80 to provide the requested documents.

Galloway pointed out that by failing to comply in a timely manner or denying requests without justification, these entities risk lawsuits and fines as well as their credibility. She said that whether any penalties will be placed on the political subdivisions who failed is up to the Attorney General, either Chris Koster or the newly-elected Josh Hawley.

“That’s up to their discretion,” Galloway stated. “We don’t prosecute here. Their office is responsible for further action.”

Galloway said she believes most public entities are aware that the Sunshine Law exists, but may be unsure of how to comply or what is required for compliance.

“We spend a considerable amount of time trying to educate entities on the Sunshine Law,” she said. “I do believe there should be more training. I think being proactive to get folks up to speed on how to comply with the Sunshine Law goes a long way for good governance and for citizens to engage with their government.”

“The Sunshine Law exists to have citizens engage,” she finished.

To see the full audit, click here.