A new bill has been introduced to the Missouri Senate which would weaken the Sunshine Law. If passed the bill would limit the transparency required of government officials and their constituents.
The Sunshine Law is an open meeting and record law. According to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, the Sunshine Law is “The public policy of this state that meetings, records, votes, actions, and deliberations of public governmental bodies be open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.” The law is meant to promote openness and transparency within Missouri’s government.
House members approved changes to the state law Feb. 4 with House Bill 445. These changes would make communications between public officials at all levels of government and their constituents largely immune to records requests.
Senior instructor of communication and mass media Jason Offutt said the Sunshine Law is important as it allows the public to know what is going on with the government.
“If it wasn’t for us having the Sunshine Law, elected government bodies, anything from the hospital board to the school board to city council to state legislators, would be able to ban regular citizens, including the press of course, from regular meetings,” Offutt said. “They would also have the authority to keep the minutes of those meetings from the press and the general public.”
The bill was first proposed by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-Mo, during a debate on a bill related to lobbyist gift bans. According to an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the amendment would exempt records, "received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body" and consist of "advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body."
Schroer also aims to exempt files that include, "any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent's request for information or assistance."
In an interview with the Herald-Free Press, Schroer said the amendment was created to give privacy to governmental officials and let them decide what information the press receives.
“The sole reason for this, and the sole intent of this was to protect our constituents’ confidentiality and let them decide if that’s going to be leaked out to the media or not,” Schroer said.
Offutt said he believed everything should be released to the press and public, as they have a right to know everything.
“Once you get elected, I don’t care what you are up to, you are a public citizen, and we have the right to know everything that is going on,” Offutt said. “If they limit us, they are not servants of the people.”
While Schroer is proposing a law which would limit the Sunshine Law according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Mo, is sponsoring an amendment that would forbid elected officials from using any type of system or software that automatically deletes messages.
This amendment was inspired by former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff who may have used an app called Confide which automatically deletes messages.
According to the Herald-Free Press, Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Mo, has also proposed an amendment which would get rid of everything Schroer has proposed except for requests for personal information such as Social Security numbers.
“Having open and public records is vital to transparency in government, and I’ll continue to advocate for it,” Carpenter said in an interview with the Herald-Free Press.
House Bill 445 was first reported and read to the Senate Feb. 11 and is still being considered by the Senate.
Offutt said he encourages the public to reach out to their local senators about the bill to prevent it from advancing further.
“I don’t think most people realize what their rights are when it comes to government transparency,” Offutt said. “So, raising as much attention to it as possible might get your senators to say ‘Wait a second, this is an issue that the people don’t like.’ And they might vote the right way, and by right way, I mean the moral way.”
Whether the bill passes or not, Offutt said he believes the Sunshine Law should not have ever been put in place because the government should always be transparent.
“We (the public) need to know everything that is going on because they are making decisions that affect us; they are spending the money comes out of our hard-earned pools,” Offutt said. “So, any government elected official that is pushing to limit that information we should take note of that and make sure we don’t vote for them the next time they are up.”