Originally posted in Columbia Missourian on March 18, 2019.
In my various previous positions, I have filed many Sunshine requests through Chapter 610, Missouri Revised Statutes, and the Freedom of Information Act.
Since I am now mostly retired (I have a problem saying “no”), I just filed a citizen’s Sunshine Law and Clean Missouri request to Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Outdoor Resources Committee.
He has acknowledged my request and stated that I could expect the rather voluminous request to be honored on or before March 22.
No doubt that whatever records Bernskoetter has, these are public records and the good senator is a public servant. In short, everything in his office has been collected with public funds, and Bernskoetter gets his salary from public funds.
The Sunshine Law — so called because it shines the sun of openness on public records — is, in quite a few ways, superior to the federal FOIA. One of the ways is the length of time required to respond: three working days in the case of the Sunshine Law, 30 working days in the case of FOIA.
Once upon a time, when I was doing research for a book, I requested via FOIA certain records from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Thirty days or more passed. The request was simply ignored, until I asked a couple of Seattle lawyers to press the Department of Agriculture to respond.
With no apology or explanation for the delay, a few days later my mailbox contained what I had requested. Of course, it was heavily redacted, but I had the information from various rumors and gossip, and I wanted verification.
Even with redaction, it was clear that the rumors I had heard were correct. It is telling, however, that it was necessary to involve attorneys before my request to a federal agency was honored. I have never encountered that in Sunshine Law requests.
The state Senate acts in accordance with the mandates of Clean Missouri. To his credit, Bernskoetter responded within the period of three working days and told me when I could expect what I had requested.
That represents a change in attitude, thanks to the passage of the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment, which made legislators’ records open to the public. Before the passage of Clean Missouri, legislators had conveniently exempted themselves from compliance with the Sunshine Law.
After the overwhelming passage of Clean Missouri by voters last year, which was opposed by several legislators, they are hoping to find a way to avoid compliance and keep their records sealed. After all, they apparently reason, what they do is their business, and the public be damned.
The Missouri House of Representatives has passed HB 445, which Sandy Davidson wrote about in her Missourian column Friday. In this bill, the legislature is attempting to keep certain records from being open and accessible.
Not so fast. The Clean Missouri language requires the legislature to have the same openness as all other public entities. The Sunshine Law is only included as an example.
In short, if legislators attempt to exempt themselves from certain requirements of the Sunshine Law and Clean Missouri, they must exempt all other government entities, from state agencies to municipalities to county commissions.
Lawyers are standing by.