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Gov. Parson suggests Sunshine Law needs revisions

Gov. Parson suggests Sunshine Law needs revisions

February 10th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivers his State of the State address Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, in Jefferson City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Missouri government agencies are spending lots of time and tax dollars answering Sunshine Law requests. And the governor says he'd like to talk about making some changes to the law to make it more workable for the public and for government officials.

"Some of the Sunshine requests that we get are so blanketed, it's a tremendous workload for the taxpayers," Gov. Mike Parson told reporters and editors at last month's Associated Press/Missouri Press Association Day at the Capitol. "Sometimes you get stuff in there that's just pages after pages" of information that needs to be copied and reviewed before it can be released.

Parson said he's "hired a full-time attorney to do nothing but Sunshine requests in the governor's office."

"I think we need to sit down (and ask), 'Is there a better way to do this?'" the governor said, "before we start making radical changes."

He didn't cite any specific changes he has in mind but said he supports the law's call for openness in government.

"We've busted our tail ends to try to be as transparent as we could, to get all the information out there that we can, for the people and the press," Parson said.

Missouri's Sunshine Law — officially, the Open Meetings/Open Records law — first was passed in 1973 and is covered in Chapter 610 of the state's Revised Statutes.

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Under the law, when someone asks for information from a government agency in the state — whether at the state or local level — that request is to be "acted upon as soon as possible, but in no event later than the end of the third business day following the date the request is received by the custodian of records."

But that doesn't mean the person seeking the information automatically will get it within three days.

That same section of law says: "If access to the public record is not granted immediately, the custodian shall give a detailed explanation of the cause for further delay and the place and earliest time and date that the record will be available for inspection.

"This period for document production may exceed three days for reasonable cause."

Missouri government agencies say they can answer most of the requests they get within a month — but more than a few of those requests for information will take longer than 30 days to be answered.

Some requests are very specific and often can be handled quickly, state officials told the News Tribune last week.

But others may be very wide-ranging.

In a March 2015 blog post on the Missouri Bar's "Missouri Lawyers Help" website, Kansas City lawyer Jean Maneke noted all requests made under the law must be handled by the "custodian of records" for the government agency being questioned.

"It is also helpful, sometimes, to be willing to discuss with the custodian what you are seeking, because you will pay for the search time," Maneke wrote, "and, sometimes, a helpful custodian can save you a significant amount of search time."

Maneke's clients include the Missouri Press Association and, in that capacity, she has worked extensively with Missouri's Sunshine Law for more than 30 years.

Several times in recent years, the Missouri auditor's office — or a news organization — has sent what amounted to "test" requests to a number of local government officials, to see what kinds of responses they would get.

In many cases, the local official wanted to know why the information was being sought.

The law does not require someone to identify why they want an answer to the question.

As Maneke told the Missouri lawyers almost four years ago: "You need not tell them why you want the record, and your request need not be in writing. But sometimes it is helpful to put it in writing so you can prove when you made it."

On Feb. 1, the News Tribune sent a short questionnaire to all six statewide officeholders and the public information representatives of the Office of Administration and the 15 state executive departments — asking about the number of Sunshine requests they've received just since last July 1, the beginning of the current state business year, through the end of January.

We also asked if they could report how quickly those questions were answered.

Their responses showed the number of actual Sunshine questions ranged from two (at the Higher Education Department) to the Public Safety Department's 4,065.

Public Safety spokesman Mike O'Connell noted: "The (Highway Patrol) totals do not include 23,528 crash reports received during the period, some of which originated as Sunshine requests."

And Daniel W. Follett, the Revenue Department's managing counsel, reported: "The Department opened a total of 55 Sunshine files.

"This is likely lower than many agencies, as much of what people want from (Revenue) are tax records and motor vehicle/driver's license records — both of which are closed as a matter of law.

"When asked, we do tell people that they will not receive these records via Sunshine Law (requests)."

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft's office received 53 official requests during the period we asked about.

"Our general counsel takes a proactive approach in the case of broad requests, calling or emailing the requestor to help narrow the focus, but the majority of the requests we receive are specific," spokeswoman Maura Browning told the News Tribune. "As such, most can be responded to by email at that time so they are not specifically tracked.

"There are many requests we quickly respond to which could be considered Sunshine requests, if we wished to require a written request — but we do our best to cooperate with the individuals requesting information and to provide transparency."

Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for Missouri's Corrections Department, told the News Tribune: "The Department considers the Sunshine Law to be potentially applicable to all requests for public information or public documents, and we try to respond as thoroughly and efficiently as we can.

"Some requests are addressed very quickly — with a simple phone call or a link to a document on our website, for example."

She said nearly all the requests the department receives are answered within one to three weeks.

In all, the officials and departments responding to our questionnaire reported receiving more than 8,300 requests under the Sunshine Law for the first seven months of the state's business year.

Of those, more than half (4,724) were answered within 30 days, the agencies said.

For example, the Natural Resources Department reported getting 1,759 requests during the period — with only 102 taking more than 30 days to answer, including two requests that still are pending.

Some of the numbers in this story are an estimate.

For example, the Department of Insurance, Financial Institutions and Professional Registration (DIFP) reported handling 579 requests during the period we asked for, resolving all but five within a month.

"DIFP is comprised of seven divisions, including 41 licensing boards and commissions who all respond to Sunshine Law requests independently — with no centralized tracking mechanism or log," spokeswoman Lori Croy said. "We have endeavored to compile the requested information from each division. We feel the information provided is representative of DIFP's Sunshine Law activity."

Parson acknowledged some requests are broad for a legitimate reason — but people should understand they'll take longer to process.

Still, he encouraged Missourians — including the media — to be more specific when making requests under the Sunshine Law.