Some groups that receive Missouri taxpayer money lobby against open records

Tuesday, March 16, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Every year, the Missouri Municipal League holds four to five training sessions to teach thousands of city employees statewide how to comply with the state's open records Sunshine Law. Every day, the league fields a few questions on the subject.

"We're the strongest proponents of the Sunshine Law," said Gary Markenson, former executive director of the league.

Filing a Sunshine Law request

1. Send an open records request to the custodian of records, appointed by a governmental body.See a sample form here.

2. The records custodian must allow access as quickly as possible but no later than the end of the third business day following the date of the request. Records must be provided in the format requested, when available.

3. If access to a public record is not granted immediately, the records custodian must explain why the record cannot be produced on time and give the place and time the record will be made available.

4. If a request for access is denied, the custodian shall provide the reasons for the denial, including the statute that authorizes the denial.

5. If you believe a public governmental body or its members have acted in violation of the Sunshine Law, you may file suit in the circuit court in the county where the public governmental body has its principal place of business.

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The Municipal League is a statewide organization of all Missouri cities that focuses on educating city employees through trainings and conferences. Cities use taxpayer money to pay membership dues to the league.

It is one of several groups that receives taxpayer money through membership dues and lobbies for legislation that would restrict public access to information. These groups — including the Police Chiefs Association, the Association of Counties and the County Collectors Association — have lobbied in favor of closing tax, assessment and investigation records and against increased penalties for violating the Sunshine Law, a law that requires public government bodies to make certain records and meetings open and available to the public.

Most of those groups' officials said they lobbied for the bills that would have limited the Sunshine Law to help protect citizens' right to privacy, whether that meant closing police records so addresses are hidden, responding to public concerns that tax information was available or keeping heavy fines from being levied.

Open-records advocates say the groups' concerns can be a double-edged sword in regard to balancing personal privacy and public transparency.

No one tracks the total number of Sunshine Law requests filed annually in the state, according to the office of the Attorney General, which enforces the law and hands down opinions interpreting it. But individual agencies often track the requests they receive. For example, Columbia Police Lt. Ken Hammond said he received 30 open records requests from November through January.

Media organizations frequently request records; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch files several hundred a year. Last year, the Post-Dispatch filed hundreds for a single investigation that highlighted how poor record-keeping and failure to punish drunken drivers let chronic offenders keep driving. That led Gov. Jay Nixon to propose an overhaul of the way drunken drivers are prosecuted, punished and treated.

But Jean Maneke, a Kansas City attorney who specializes in the Sunshine Law, said a common misconception is that it's just a "press law." Citizens often use the law, too, Maneke said.

One of those is Columbia resident Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, who has frequently requested records. She said it's important for more people, especially journalists, to file requests. She started using open records while living in Los Angeles when a large chunk of a park across the street from her home was fenced off.

After requesting documents to uncover what was happening, she said she found the city government had falsified documents and lied about public meetings to secretly get a 911 center built in the park.

"Making those requests taught me that you can't really trust everything the government says," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "Open records is the one tool we, as the public, have to keep government honest."

A 2007 study of state open records laws by the coalition and the Better Government Association ranked Missouri No. 42 overall, based on criteria such as response time and penalties for violating the law. 

"(Missouri law is) OK, nothing to be embarrassed by," said Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition. "But with a few simple fixes, it can be so much better."

Davis said some of those fixes would have come from House Bill 316, which sought greater compliance with the Sunshine Law by increasing penalties for violating it and would have required the public be notified earlier about meetings.

The Missouri Municipal League and the Association of Counties lobbied against the bill, citing concerns that fines were too high and that the extended public notice was too great. Although defeated last session, the bill has been reintroduced as HB1445 this legislative session.

Other examples of proposed legislation that would close records or limit the Sunshine Law from the past two legislative session include:

  • SB66, which would have limited the public's access to financial interest statements from individuals such as public officials and candidates for elected office. Those with operating budgets more than $1 million are required to file financial interest statements, but this legislation would have made it $2 million. The Missouri Municipal League lobbied for it, citing inflation as the primary reason for the legislation.
  • HB62, which in an original version of the bill included an amendment that would have kept the public from seeing any records regarding internal police investigations unless wrongdoing was found, and would have allowed that the reason for the information to be closed as a personnel matter. The Missouri Police Chiefs' Association lobbied in favor of this bill and this specific amendment to make sure "the facts are obtained, not allegations," Police Chiefs' Executive Director Sheldon Lineback said.
  • HB1034, which would have closed county assessment records for police officers and their "immediate family," defined in the bill as parents, siblings, spouses, children or dependent relatives. The Police Chiefs' Association lobbied for it to protect officers from possible retaliation.
  • SB1253, which would have restricted the commercial use of property tax records, meaning that taxpayers would have less access to see who pays taxes. After receiving some complaints from taxpayers that their information was available online, the County Collectors Association lobbied in favor of it.

Markenson said even though the league trains city employees to handle the Sunshine Law, it can be complicated for them. Rep. Tim Jones, R-St. Louis County, has introduced a bill for the second time that would have increased fines for violating the Sunshine Law.

Markenson said heavier fines for violating the law, even inadvertently, could turn away people interested in being elected officials or volunteers.

"There are so many little traps you could fall into and forget to do," Markenson said, but acknowledged that city employees should be following the law. "Most of the time it's a technicality."

Mayor Darwin Hindman said he supports such lobbying by the Municipal League because the public is kept in mind even when the league's objective is closing records.

"At some point, there has to be a limit to the Sunshine Law. The question is, where do you draw the line?" Hindman said. "I think it's very appropriate for municipalities to deal with the legislature for issues they think will affect municipalities. When they make decisions, they're generally looking after the taxpayers."

In the 2008 Association of Counties' 990 tax form, the organization said one of its primary purposes was representing the "best interests of counties at the state legislature to improve services to the taxpayer and citizen." But whether it is in the public's best interest to support legislation that could close records is a debate that Dick Burke, executive director for the Association of Counties, said hinges on how one would define "reasonable" closure.

"It is a fine line to walk," said Daryl Duwe, a lobbyist who represents the County Collectors Association. "I'm certainly not interested in closing records that don't need to be closed, but it's something people need to consider with a lot of information over the Internet."

Maneke said she doubts the public is considered when records are closed.

"I don't think it's in the citizens' best interest. The public has concerns about what happens in their local community, and if they don't know about it, you don't get the public's opinion in decisions," Maneke said. "People are elected to represent the public, and it's their responsibility to listen to the public and then make decisions."

Open records advocates and citizens such as Wilson-Kleekamp challenged the fairness of closing records and meetings to taxpayers, who fund the public entities —  such as cities, counties and police departments — that these statewide groups represent.

"It's public property. The public should have the right to know," said Harry Gallagher, a lobbyist who represents the Missouri Press Association, among other groups.

For example, the city of Columbia pays the Municipal League $9,688 in membership dues, and the Boone County Commission pays the Association of Counties $10,250 annually, according to city and county offices. Because the league is not a public institution, it is not required to release the amount of dues collected in a year.

Although this money isn't specifically listed as a source of revenue for lobbying, officials said it often goes into one big pot that is eventually budgeted for lobbying or educational expenses. Additionally, these groups' executive directors receive salaries for their work, and part of that includes lobbying and educating representatives.

All of the bills analyzed by the Missourian failed in the General Assembly in 2008 and 2009, and all but HB316 would have closed certain records. The General Assembly is already considering at least six open-records bills this year.

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