A new audit shows a vast majority of local governments in Missouri fail to fully comply with the state’s Sunshine Law.
Response to letter requests for basic public information reveals most governments fall short in conforming with transparency requirements, while some blatantly ignore them.
The state auditor’s office sent requests for basic information such as the minutes of recent public meetings to more than 300 governments in August. Only 30 percent of the governing bodies fully complied with open records requirements while 16 percent didn’t respond at all.
State Auditor Nicole Galloway thinks the governments failed to observe rules for a variety of reasons. “My feeling is that most public entities are aware that the sunshine law exists” said Galloway. “They maybe are not sure how to comply, or the specifics of compliance. Some are egregious. And you can tell through the audit process that it appears purposeful, that they have a disregard for the sunshine law. Some of these mistakes are smaller.”
A mix of cities, counties, school districts and various taxing districts were randomly selected for the audit. Certified letters sent to the governments were not on official office letterhead in order to reflect what the average citizen experiences when requesting public information.
Galloway thinks the biggest offending governments were those who failed to respond to the correspondence. “They received a certified letter. They have the response. They either responded that they’re not going to comply because they want additional information from the requester, or they just ignored it completely. To me, those are the most egregious.”
Four of the governments denied access to the basic information for unlawful reasons. A letter from a Jefferson Township of Grundy County Trustee, responding to a request, said more information was needed “as to the purpose of your request, your belief as to your right to the information, and the eventual use of the proprietary information.” According to open records laws in Missouri, none of the information contained in a public meeting by a local government is proprietary, and anyone asking for it is not required to provide more information.
Of the governments found in noncompliance, 26 percent failed to respond to requests within the required three business days, while some took more than 20 days to respond. Some of the governments failed to provide any public notice of meetings while some failed to specify when a meeting was closed. A number of governments charged fees for the retrieval of information, which is legal, but state Auditor Galloway says some of those fees were exorbitantly high, up to $80.00.
Galloway thinks the problem can be addressed through better training and stricter enforcement of the Sunshine Law. The audit report states that by not responding to requests in a timely or proper manner, the government bodies “subject themselves to lawsuits and fines and risk credibility with their constituency”.
Galloway says the audit was partly fueled by complaints from citizens. “I often hear that they aren’t getting responses from their local government, that they don’t know when the meetings are. The meeting minutes are not complete. We also get calls into our whistleblower hotline regarding engagement at the local level on how decisions are being made, and kind of being shut out of the process in some instances.”
Galloway says her office is looking at putting state agencies through a transparency test at some point, but wants to preserve the element of surprise.