By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
ST. LOUIS — Missouri’s “open records” are effectually closed to the pubic.
Missouri gets an “F” for transparency, according to a State Integrity investigation. The state’s report card is filled with red marks. Some old, some new.
The Missouri state auditor, meanwhile, found dozens of violations of the state’s open records law in a report released this spring.
Show Me state? Not so much.
The State Integrity investigation is a partnership of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. The coalition used experienced journalists to grade each state on its corruption risk by evaluating 330 scores in 14 categories. In addition to public access to information, other areas considered included state pension fund management, lobbying disclosure and accountability of the judicial, executive and legislative branches.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, and Global Integrity is an advocate for honest and transparent government, according to the respective websites.
Scores were determined after interviews with dozens of public officials and close examination of state statutes and other documents.
Although Missouri scored a “C-minus” overall, it still, surprisingly, ranked 15th best among the 50 states. Its only “A,” fittingly enough, was for internal auditing procedures.
The Show Me State got the dreaded “F” for records access.
Alleged Sunshine Law violations cannot be appealed through administrative means, a lawsuit being the public’s only recourse.
“There’s a lot of danger in a statutory regime that does not encourage intervention in any way other than through litigation,” said Charles Davis, former head of the Freedom of Information Coalition in Columbia.
The Information Coalition describes itself as a “non-partisan alliance of citizen-driven nonprofit freedom of information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys.”
Kenneth Bunting, the FOI coalition chief, said only media companies are likely to file such a lawsuit and, with shrinking profits, are becoming more reluctant to do so. Even if the plaintiff wins, penalties are usually limited to the violating agency paying a fine and court costs.
“That’s not much of a penalty because that’s taxpayer money — not theirs — and the bureaucrat who committed the violation is not punished,” Bunting said.
The lack of penalties in Missouri is common across the United States. Florida is the only state that allows criminal punishment for violators, he said. Bunting supports efforts to give the law more teeth, but says legislators are more interested in “creating loopholes than transparency.”
Bunting said he gets plenty of calls about open records because state officials seem reluctant to assist. Attorney General Chris Koster’s handbook lists Bunting’s office as a contact for Sunshine Law problems.
“I’m happy to help,” Bunting said, “but I think the attorney general should be trying to help people with those issues.”
Koster’s press secretary, Nanci Gonder, said residents can file a complaint on the office’s website when perceived violations occur. An attorney from the office will then write the body in question with the allegation, the statute that applies and a request for a response, Gonder said.
Tom Durkin, the AG’s public education director, has offered 172 Sunshine Law presentations to 109 counties and the city of St. Louis since Koster took office in 2009.
“We think that’s been helpful in helping public officials understand the law and their responsibilities,” Gonder said.
That’s debatable, given what the auditor has uncovered.
This spring, a state auditor’s report found a laundry list of Sunshine Law violations in Missouri, from dozens of instances in which meetings were closed without proper explanation to a handful of government entities that failed to have policies in place for people to request public records.
Bunting said Missouri has a strong Sunshine Law on paper, but audit reports show many government entities aren’t following it.
“It’s frightening to me sometimes when I get calls from small towns that the town clerk is acting with impunity and has done so for some time,” said Bunting of the Information Coalition. “No one who pays close attention to what is going on thinks there is openness in practice.”
Missouri Auditor Thomas A. Schewich compiled a Sunshine Law report using nearly 300 audits his staff had completed between January 2010 and December 2011.
He found no shortage of accountability issues.
Three government bodies failed to maintain proper meeting minutes, and eight more did not have records with enough detail, investigators found.
A more common problem was closing a meeting and entering executive session without proper explanation. The auditor’s office found that 34 agencies closed meetings without adequately documenting the reasons in the minutes.
Sixteen bodies failed to maintain minutes for the discussions held in closed session, and seven failed to provide sufficient detail in their closed-meeting minutes. Another 32 failed to document how some issues discussed in closed meetings were allowable under state law.
The open records law allows public meetings to be closed for just a few reasons, including personnel issues, pending litigation or possible real estate purchases.
The auditor’s report also cities two bodies that had at least one instance in which business may have been conducted outside of regular open meetings. Anytime a quorum of a board meets in person or by phone and transacts public business is a violation of the Sunshine Law.
Schweich found that eight government bodies did not have proper procedures in place to deal with public records requests.
Some examples from the Sunshine Law audit report:
Missouri State University was dinged because its Board of Governors frequently gave a blanket excuse for closing a meeting to discuss the common exceptions. However, the board frequently discussed issues not covered in the Sunshine Law behind closed doors, according to the auditor. The audit report also noted that entire paragraphs were redacted in public records released regarding an employee’s disciplinary matter.
The Village of Riverview tried to charge people a copying rate of $10.15 per hour on top of a $21.01 per hour research rate for public records, although the state law allows a maximum of 10 cents per page for copies. Moreover, forms distributed to residents at the counter indicated a research rate of $10 per hour.
The Mountain Grove Board of Alderman held a workshop in a conference room behind the council chambers on July 5, 2011, in which no minutes were taken. The report noted it was unclear if the workshop — which was attended by a quorum of the board — was an open meeting.
Minutes were not taken for several city-affiliated committees in Richmond, including meetings by the finance, ordinance, public works and public safety committees. Law requires all committees to keep records of actions taken and filed with the city clerk.
Missouri Watchdog contacted Riverview on Monday to ask for minutes from the past 12 months of Village Council meetings, and was told it would cost 10 cents per copy and a $10.45 per hour research rate, with an expectation the process would take about two hours. Overall charge: about $28.
Watchdog also called Phelps County to ask for Sheriff Rick Lesenbe’s salary. His office got into trouble with the auditor because $32,000 of jail commissary money went missing. The call was transferred to the county clerk’s office, where an employee reported a salary of $62,400.
A quick check of the Village of Leawood’s website showed that meeting minutes and ordinances are readily available. An audit blasted the village for poor record keeping and availability in 2010.
A similar Sunshine Law report completed in 2010 by then auditor Susan Montee showed 47 government entities failed to follow proper procedures for either open meeting minutes or documentation for closing meetings. Business was conducted outside regular open meeting by four government bodies in that 2010 report, and 24 agencies needed improvement in their policies and procedures regarding public access to records, Montee said.
Jim Robertson, board president of the Sunshine Coalition, a group of media and community leaders fighting for open government, said the studies are disheartening.
“The auditor reports show that we have a problem in this state and that it hasn’t gotten better over time,” he said.
Robertson said educating the citizenry on the importance of open government is a major issue. Very few rural governments are closely watched, he said.
“There’s just not very much attention paid to government bodies going by the open meetings and records act,” he said.