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Opinion: Lawmakers seek to amend Sunshine Law, restrict records

Truth Be Told

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Editor’s Note: House Bill 445 was passed by the Missouri House of Representatives after Springfield Business Journal went to press on Feb. 7. It has been sent to the Senate for consideration, according to House.Mo.gov.

For those of us who made it through this year’s Super Bowl, the lowest scoring in NFL history, you may have heard the familiar voice of Tom Hanks narrate a debut ad from The Washington Post.

“When we go off to war, when we exercise our rights … there is someone to gather the facts,” Hanks says. “To bring you the story, no matter the cost.”

The ad uses the newspaper’s slogan adopted nearly two years ago: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Missouri’s legislature should take note.

The state House of Representatives was expected to vote the week of Feb. 4 on a bill that would reverse Missouri voters’ wishes for transparency expressed in the last midterm elections with the passage of Amendment 1. (They had not voted by press time.) The changes seek to restrict certain lawmakers’ records from public view and could include nearly all communication outside of floor discussions and votes.

An expressed intent from Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, in his proposed amendment to House Bill 445, seems to protect citizens’ privacy when they communicate with lawmakers, but the language itself has sweeping ramifications. This comes on the heels of last month’s vote by House lawmakers to re-exempt themselves of the requirement to disclose certain public records, essentially ignoring the will of voters.

One amendment to the Sunshine Law introduced with HB 445 exempts personal cellphone numbers, Social Security numbers and home addresses from disclosure. That makes sense.

Another amendment would forbid elected officials from using software that automatically deletes messages. Former Gov. Eric Greitens and his staff had used a message-deleting app, called Confide, to discuss government business. That amendment is a win for transparency.

HB 445 at its core is written to prohibit lobbyist gifts to government officials. But the concerning amendment from Schroer sets to exclude “any document or record, including electronic communications, received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body consisting of advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.” The Sunshine Law definition of “public governmental body” is not just limited to elected lawmakers. Therein lies some just of the sweeping ramifications.

Just last legislative session, the House voted to create a division in the state attorney general’s office dedicated to investigating Sunshine Law violations, including destroying public records.

“At that point, there was some really strong interest in enforcement of the Sunshine Law,” said Jean Maneke, counsel for the Missouri Press Association, in a Feb. 6 article with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But this is definitely a turn – 180 degrees – in the other direction.”

Schroer wrote an opinion piece published Feb. 6 in The Missouri Times appealing to state residents regarding his amendment, assuring them the intent is to protect the privacy of citizens. He says the amendment stems from shielding constituent requests and personal data from public view.

“Ask yourself this: Are you comfortable with your birthdate, home address or phone number being handed over to anyone who sends a letter to the chief clerk or the House?” Schroer wrote.

The issue is, the Sunshine Law protects the basic privacy of constituents. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board noted, if Schroer felt Clean Missouri’s Amendment 1 nullified or steamrolled those laws, he could propose legislations to remedy the concern. Instead, legislation is being debated that drives legislators’ communications further underground, just when the majority of Missouri voters called for greater transparency.

According to Clean Missouri, the newly-adopted Amendment 1 requires legislative records be open to the public and that legislators operate under the same rules as other public bodies.

Statewide, the measure passed by 60 percent in the November 2018 midterms and even higher at 66 percent in Greene County. The goal was to clean up Missouri politics and require members of the state House to follow the Sunshine Law.

If Schroer’s sole intent is to protect constituent privacy, this went too far. Especially in this political climate when voters are seeking transparency.

The Missouri Sunshine Law was adopted in 1973, the same year the U.S. Senate conducted hearings regarding Watergate. Journalists and the public alike use the protections of the Sunshine Law as checks-and-balances for our government.

The concern over governmental transparency is felt nationwide. The Washington Post felt so strongly about promoting its importance and role in the era of fake news that it spent millions of dollars on its first Super Bowl commercial.

Legislators, take note.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor Christine Temple can be reached at ctemple@sbj.net.

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