MO bill would give state agencies broad power to block public access to records, meeting

Missouri lawmakers are weighing a bill that would limit the public’s ability to access government records and attend public meetings.

The bill, filed by state Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican, is set to be heard Thursday morning by the Senate Governmental Accountability Committee. It would allow state and local government agencies to close certain meetings to the public for various security reasons.

It would also allow state and local government officials to deny citizens from viewing or accessing records that don’t have “substantial administrative or operational value” — a definition that appears to give agencies sweeping authority to close records.

The legislation increases the amount of time government agencies can take to respond to public records requests — from three days to five — and it would allow agencies to charge citizens more money for those records.

Opponents say the legislation would significantly gut Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which was enacted 50 years ago. The law protects citizens’ rights to access public records and meetings. While government transparency advocates have called for lawmakers to increase the scope of the law, the only real push among Republican lawmakers to change the Sunshine Law in recent years has been to exclude certain documents and communications from public view.

“This legislation is designed to effectively cripple citizens’ ability to gain a thorough understanding of what their government is doing,” David Roland, co-founder of the libertarian nonprofit Freedom Center of Missouri, told The Star. “It would limit access to only very specific meetings, very specific records. And that I think would be catastrophic in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Koenig, in an interview with The Star, said one of the goals of his bill is to prevent the email addresses and phone numbers of citizens who contact the government from being released to the general public.

“I think a lot of constituents email us with the idea that that’s private information,” he said. “I don’t think they are under the impression that those emails can be sunshined.”

Government transparency advocates argue that this information could be important for the public’s right to know what business their government is conducting and who is interacting with their elected officials.

Koenig also pointed to data that could be released through records requests that would make it unsafe for police investigations.

“There’s definitely some loopholes I think need to be closed,” he said.

Jean Maneke, an attorney for the Missouri Press Association, told The Star that the various changes in Koenig’s bill would close records that were previously available to the public. Among the changes, Maneke pointed to a provision that would allow government agencies to charge citizens for the time attorneys spend redacting documents. She said this would make access to records more expensive because citizens would essentially be paying attorney fees.

This provision would reverse a 2021 Missouri Supreme Court ruling that citizens could not be charged for attorney review time under the Sunshine Law.

Maneke also criticized a part of Koenig’s law that would allow agencies to label certain records as temporary records, instead of permanent public records, and close them from public view. That provision appears to give government officials wide range to call a record temporary and prevent the public from viewing it.

“There are some real significant ways that this bill will close public records,” she said. “The public is going to find they can’t get access to information that’s always been available.”

Koenig acknowledged that the part of his bill regarding closing transitory records would likely be removed as it moves through the legislative process.

“We have heard some concerns that maybe it went too far,” he said.

Transparency advocates have fought for years to make Missouri state government more responsive to the Sunshine Law, including through the 2018 passage of the Clean Missouri initiative, which made legislative records subject to disclosure.

In theory, the Sunshine Law is supposed to make public records readily accessible. In practice, requests can sometimes linger for months and large fees can sometimes discourage requesters of records.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, in a presentation to his cabinet prior to the 2022 legislative session, listed among his top priorities proposals that would have increased the cost of obtaining records from the government.

Parson’s office did not respond to an email from The Star Wednesday asking if amending the Sunshine Law was still a priority for the governor.