While much attention has been paid to attempts by the Republican Party in Jefferson City to reverse the nongerrymandering language in Missouri Amendment 1 (passed by an overwhelming majority), there is another provision in the amendment relating to public records that has received scant notice. There is a bill in the Missouri legislature that purports to exempt state legislators from the Sunshine Act, but as I learned in a long-ago class, an amendment to a Constitutional law can only be done by a vote of the citizenry and not by a legislative act.
The reason the General Assembly is not much interested in revoking the public records portion is that only those who have a large bank account can afford to examine or receive documents that are clearly defined as public records. You see, the Sunshine Act, Chapter 610 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, does allow public servants to charge for the cost of copying and to charge for the time spent by staff on a search for compiling records.
In my case, I asked state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee in the Senate and the primary sponsor of SB 319, about the bill. That measure provides that state laws and regulations supersede any and all regulations and ordinances of units of local government, such as county commissions and local boards of health.
SB 319 passed the Senate and House and was signed by Gov. Mike Parson. It is currently being challenged by a coalition of groups, primarily county commissions, and is not yet law.
There are several problems with the bill, the main one being that there are very few — perhaps no — state regulations about the placement, maintenance or treatment of animals.
The second main problem is that local units of government know best their local conditions and constituents and the state knows little of either. Yet, if this law is allowed to take effect, the state is asserting that it knows best. This is nonsense.
The third problem is that the bill claims to be retroactive, throwing out the actions of local units of government.
Feeling that Sen. Bernskoetter’s bill was conducted on behalf of agribusiness entities, I filed an open records request with his office. The Sunshine Act requires a response within three working days. Sen. Bernskoetter responded within that time period and informed me of the date when my request would be honored.
I was taken aback. When the records were available, Sen. Bernskoetter informed me that I would be charged over $4,000 for the records. Since that far exceeded what I had budgeted for, I did not respond and, as far as I know, the records that I had requested are still gathering dust in his office. The amount that he had fixed on the request indicated to me that my original assumption was correct: Agribusiness interests had influenced the bill and Sen. Bernskoetter.
That, then, appears to be where we are. A citizen has access to public records as long as the person requesting the records has a pile of money. In short, the ability to access and receive a public servant’s records, collected and stored with public money, is totally dependent upon the ability to pay.