Any member of the public can go to the debates in Missouri House or Senate. And in November, voters said the discussions about legislation and strategy that lawmakers have in emails and other documents should be public knowledge, too.
But some legislators are looking to once again shield those records from public view, a move that opponents say is a step backward for government openness and transparency.
Members of the General Assembly became subject to the state’s open records law (aka the Sunshine Law) after the passage of Amendment 1, otherwise known as Clean Missouri, in December.
But a Senate bill, along with a similar bill that has already passed the House, would shield their emails relating to strategy on legislation and constituent concerns.
Supporters of the legislation said Amendment 1 made no provisions to protect the privacy of residents who seek help from their representatives or senators. But opponents believe it’s another sign of an era where government transparency is less valued — especially coming after the Greitens administration, which used secretive apps to communicate.
“I can certainly understand why legislators would want to keep communication that relates to constituents’ personal life private,” said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri. “I do not think that communications that relate to the legislative process, communications that could have an influence on a legislator and how they vote, should be kept from the public eye.”
The House legislation also extends those exemptions to local governments, including city councils and school boards, which opponents say would take away a tool residents can use to push officials for answers and solutions.
A ‘genuine’ effort
The state’s Sunshine Law has been in the spotlight for several months now, starting with former Gov. Eric Greitens. He, members of his staff, as well as the state Highway Patrol, frequently used apps like Confide or Silent Phone, which delete messages after they’re sent.
These apps are the subject of a lawsuit over whether their use violates the state’s Sunshine Law. While Gov. Mike Parson has banned the use of the apps by state officials, the House bill would codify it into state law.
Meanwhile, St. Louis attorney Elad Gross, who is running for attorney general in 2020, separately sued Parson’s office for not releasing records from the Greitens administration. Gross has been looking into the role certain nonprofits played in Greitens’ political career; both Greitens and U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, the former attorney general, have been subpoenaed to testify in the case.
“All of these kinds of cases, although they exist now, with the changes that are being made in Missouri Sunshine Law or at least being proposed, those would go away,” Gross said. “We'd see a lot less transparency in Missouri government and I think that's the wrong direction to be going.”
But some Republicans in the legislature pushed back at the notion that their bills — and the situations involving the apps — are linked.
“I think what we are trying to do with this is very genuine,” said GOP Sen. Ed Emery of Lamar, who is sponsoring the Senate bill. “I think there's a genuine distrust of government ... it's a pile-on type issue: ‘Yeah, I don’t trust government either, and so I want this to published.’ “But if you talk to someone who’s communicating with my office, they might have a little different view,” he added.
“Communications between a legislator and anyone actually that contacted my office prior to Amendment 1 was very similar to the protection that you get if you talk to your attorney,” Emery said. “That has always been protected so that people could communicate with me on personal issues, on legal issues, on things that you wouldn't necessarily just want broadcast on the front page of the paper.”
But Emery and other Senate Republicans oppose including local governments in the exemptions.
‘Some kind of change’
On New Year’s Eve 2016, Cecile Leggio was in an accident near the intersection of 67th Street and Ralston Avenue in Raytown. She later died at a hospital. The family wanted to know more about that intersection, so attorney Chris Dandurand tried using the Sunshine Law.
“And in particular, we requested complaints about the intersection and police reports about incidents that had occurred at any time prior to that intersection because we wanted to know what does the city of Raytown know about this intersection? Do they know that it's dangerous,” Dandurand said.
But city officials refused to comply, citing an exemption in the law they felt allows them to hold records if someone intended to file a claim against the city, which Leggio’s family had not yet done. Dandurand asked the family for permission to file suit under the Sunshine Law.
“They didn't necessarily know exactly what it meant other than they knew that the city was supposed to comply with the Sunshine Law and to produce documents in response to a request like this,” Dandurand said. “But when we explained to them the likelihood of something like this happening to another family … they realize that if the City of Raytown is going to obstruct and block access to public records to someone who already has an attorney, then there's no telling what they'll be saying to people out there who are essentially on their own.”