Mahoney’s Minute: “This seems to be some lawmakers ducking for cover.”

Back in November, Missouri voters approved an ethics reform plan for politicians in Jefferson City. Some lawmakers are now pushing back. KMBC 9’s Micheal Mahoney has some thoughts. Here’s Mahoney’s minute.
The attack on Missouri’s open records law continues. It needs to stop. House would exempt any correspondence between a lawmaker and constituent from being an open record. It would also keep private any correspondence from the lawmaker about what they think on a bill. This is happening because Missouri voters overwhelmingly called clean Missouri. Some lawmakers don’t like this, making them have to obey the open records and restrictions would apply to all levels of government. A representative from Missouri claims she just wants her voters to be comfortable in contacting her. The implication is they were uncomfortable in the past?
This seems to be some lawmakers ducking for cover. Hiding information from the voters. It’s bad for Missouri. That’s my minute.
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In Undoing Clean Missouri’s Reforms, Legislators Don’t Even Bother Hiding Their Contempt

Originally published by Ray Hartmann in the River Front Times on February 13, 2019

Just a week in advance of Valentine’s Day, the Missouri House of Representatives sent the following greeting of love to the citizens of the state: “Take your good-government tripe and shove it.”

Your public servants in Jefferson City wasted no time in correcting the voters’ presumptuous idea that they could use the ballot box to reform state government.

As you might recall, Missourians voted last November in favor of Constitutional Amendment 1, nicknamed Clean Missouri. It wasn’t a close call. The victory margin was 62 to 38 percent. In some circles, that would constitute a mandate.

Not in your state capitol, where “mandate” sounds too damn much like something those homosexuals do. And “transparency”? Don’t even go there.

No, it turns out that thoughtful legislators needed to explain to the citizens that they didn’t really mean to vote the way they did.

So, here’s what the House of Representatives decided to do: First they took the good-government provisions of Amendment 1 and extended them to local officials, school districts and the like throughout the state, a reasonable thing.

But then, in an act of astonishing arrogance, they used the cover of that bill to push through amendments that fundamentally destroy the state’s Sunshine Law as it applies to the legislature itself. And by using the amendment route, they were able to pull it off without so much as a single public hearing on their malfeasance.

This is not subtle stuff. Here is the last line in Amendment 1, the one to which 1,469,093 Missourians said “yes”:

“The amendment further requires all legislative records and proceedings to be subject to the state open meetings and records law (Missouri Sunshine Law).”

Now consider what will be newly exempt from the Sunshine Law, thanks to a modification slipped in by way of amendment to Thursday’s bill by Rep. Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon): “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information.” Schroer’s amendment would also exempt any document or record “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.”

In other words, pretty much any communication with a state legislator would become none of the public’s business, unless that legislator thinks so. That’s an outrageous notion, even for a state legislature traditionally known to regard ethics as a contagious disease. But to have it come on the heels of a constitutional amendment to the contrary, passed with a victory margin of 569,480 votes, is actually fairly spectacular.

It should be noted that this isn’t the first salvo fired back by the legislators at those annoying voters. The new House had barely settled into session when it changed its rules to keep confidential “constituent case files and records relating to Democrats’ or Republicans’ ‘caucus strategy,’” according to the Post-Dispatch.

Understand that this is just the beginning of what appears to be a war on “Clean Missouri,” a full package of reforms aimed at fixing things in Jeff City. The sentence requiring legislative compliance with the state Sunshine Law wasn’t nearly as controversial as the language compelling a new redistricting process or the new restrictions it put on campaign donations and lobbyist gifts. I have a sneaking feeling that many more “corrections” will be coming from the state legislature to the reforms enacted by the people in November.

This isn’t altogether unprecedented. Previous legislatures have acted to overturn the stated will of the people after public initiatives on gun control, puppy mills, minimum wage and the like. But the hubris in this one is unique. The legislators themselves were the specific target of what they’re trying to overturn in this case. When Rep. Jon Carpenter (D-Kansas City), explains his opposition to Schroer’s bill by saying that, under the new provisions, “We’re not going to have to turn over virtually anything,” that should get your attention.

The message from Jefferson City’s political class is quite clear: “Yes, we understand you people want good government. But we like bad government. You goody two-shoes types can pass all the ballot items you want. We’re here, we’re voting after you and we get the last word. So, get over it.”

The lawmakers’ fig leaf for exempting themselves from the Sunshine Law is that poor, innocent citizens will have their lives ruined by the publication of their social security and cell phone numbers — and, God forbid, their opinions on state issues — by the prying villains of the media, lawyers making Sunshine Law requests and others.

What a joke. The Sunshine Law already allows for redaction of private information. Tweaks to reflect the digital age would be one thing, but this feigned concerned about the poor average citizen is too much to bear. In case it hadn’t occurred to you, if you communicate with a public official on that official’s public email account, you really aren’t entitled to what’s known as “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” That’s why they’re called “public” officials, right?

Here’s one more radical suggestion: How about giving daylight a chance? If, in the coming year, we find that the voters have unleashed horrific unintended consequences upon themselves, we can deal with it then.

The state’s Sunshine Law has been around almost half a century. It was a signature achievement of a Republican governor named Kit Bond — working with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in 1973 — and as a Watergate-era reform, it was a universally feel-good thing.

Admittedly, the world’s changed a lot since then, and it’s true we have a president whose activities past and present make look Watergate look like a high school prank in comparison.

But how has it come to pass that we have a state legislature actively working to reverse a public initiative that, among other things, cries out for more openness and accountability? There’s some irony that Bond’s pride and joy is being undone by Republicans, but it should be noted that this wasn’t a strict party-line vote. Some Democrats were on board for this nonsense, too, and some Republicans said no.

One can make a case that too many matters are decided these days — from the right and the left — by way of the initiative process in states like Missouri. It’s not the ideal way to run a government.

But as long as the general assembly is so blatantly unaccountable, it’s not hard to see why people from all parts of the political spectrum see it as an obstacle, not a place to solve problems.

It just ain’t clean.

 

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Lawmakers seek to amend Sunshine Law, restrict records

Originally posted by the Springfield Business Journal on February 11, 2019

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.

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More disclosure is better

Originally authored by Hand Waters for the Columbia Daily Tribune on February 10, 2019

For as long as I can remember, we minions of the media have constantly worried about preserving the essence of public disclosure of government documents and activities. Ironically, we worry if proposals are offered to strengthen open meeting and records laws, public custodians of such information will seek to make laws more restrictive, not less.

With the recent passage by voters of Amendment 1, the so-called Clean Missouri initiative, such a moment is upon us now.

The least noticed provision of the amendment is the requirement all legislative records and proceedings must be open to the public. One would think that already is the law, yet lawmakers seek to use the opportunity discuss the issue to thwart rather than protect openness. Bills introduced by Republicans would carve out exemptions, reversing the plain meaning of existing law and the amendment’s language.

If the issue is left to a simple majority decision in the legislature, the GOP majority will succeed. As always in the past, disclosure requirements must be maintained by pressure outside the special interests of incumbent public officials. The press will dependably be in favor of disclosure, but the real beneficiaries are public citizens who literally can’t perform our civic duty without knowing what government is up to.

Other provisions of Amendment 1 will receive more attention, but nothing is more important than the simple requirement that legislative records and proceedings be open to the public. Let your lawmakers know openness must be preserved.

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As they dodge Sunshine Law, legislators risk dragging local governments into darkness

Originally posted by the Springfield News-Leader on February 9, 2019

It’s been a few years since I traded my reporter’s notebook for an editor’s chair, but I found myself treading familiar ground on a recent trip to the City Clerk’s office.

The office was mostly as I remembered it, with a few new faces, and I was pointed quickly to my objective: a green file folder, packed to the gills with copies of emails sent to City Council.

The messages, which are printed out and open to public view, were snapshots of the issues capturing the community’s attention: An out-of-town letter writer described a pit bull attack, while residents wrote to lobby against a zoning change and suggest edits to the recently approved short-term rental ordinance.

Along with the public agendas the city posts online, those papers and electronic documents provide a clear, wide window into City Council’s decision-making process, ensuring public business is conducted in public view.

If the Missouri legislature continues on its present course, those documents, and a vast swath of other public records, could be withheld from citizens.

The looming veil of secrecy comes from proposed changes, already approved in the Missouri House, to the state Sunshine Law.

Missouri’s open-records law, which was adopted in 1973 as the Watergate scandal roiled Washington, starts with the assumption that government business is the public’s business. It requires, with relatively few exceptions, that meetings, records and deliberations of government bodies be accessible to citizens.

Legislators have long considered themselves outside the authority of the Sunshine Law. Clean Missouri, the constitutional amendment approved in November by 62 percent of state voters, changed that, making clear that individual lawmakers’ emails and other records are subject to public scrutiny.

I can’t say I was surprised when legislators almost immediately moved to undo the change. In the first days of the 2019 session, House Republicans passed an (arguably unconstitutional) rule change allowing members to opt out of compliance.

An amendment by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, which was tacked onto a bill limiting lobbyist gifts, goes much further. It would allow members of government bodies — from a county zoning board to City Hall to the statehouse — to withhold most any document they send or receive that consists of “advice, opinions and recommendations” connected to the decision-making process or constituent requests for information or favors.

Critics in the press and the legal community have sounded the alarm, saying the bill would gut the existing Sunshine Law and hamper the public’s ability to monitor government at the state and local levels.

Those warnings did little to slow the bill’s rush through the House. Voted on Thursday, the bill containing the Sunshine Law changes was approved with the support of 96 of the 114 members of the Republican supermajority. Fourteen Republicans cast ‘no’ votes while four were absent. Seven House Democrats voted for the bill, with 33 voting ‘no’ and seven absent.

The bill, which could now head to the state Senate and from there to the governor’s desk, would have far-reaching consequences for folks in Springfield and the rest of the state, drastically limiting their ability to keep tabs on local law enforcement, university curators, elected officials and government agencies.

Here are a few things that could change:

Does that person actually live here?
The first addition contained in the House bill would allow those in charge of government records to withhold mention of “personal cellular telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, and home addresses of any individuals.”

That might sound good on the surface — who doesn’t value personal privacy? — but in practice, it isn’t so simple. (Social Security numbers, by the way, already are protected from disclosure under state law.)

Allowing addresses to be withheld would be a major change, because they’re such a common method for determining whether a person is a resident. In Springfield, for example, candidates for City Council must gather the signatures of a certain number of local voters to be put on the ballot. If addresses are withheld, there’s no way for the public to check that petitions were processed accurately and fairly.

Same thing for initiative petitions — the next time someone wants to decriminalize marijuana or ban minors from bars, voters will just have to take the city’s word about whether the signatures were sufficient to get on the ballot.

Want to know whether folks testifying on council bills (or writing the emails that end up in that green folder) actually live in town? That would no longer be considered public knowledge.

Things could get even weirder with regard to police records, neighborhood complaints and other enforcement actions.

Although they’d still be required to disclose the locations of reported crimes in initial reports, police potentially could withhold addresses in other records, along with the addresses of suspects who commit crimes in other people’s homes.

Forget about investigating neighborhood nuisances — as long as someone lives in them, properties with repeat offenses could be shielded from public view.

And what if the city discovers a leaking sewer pipe or another environmental hazard? The addresses of any inhabited homes that were affected potentially could be kept secret.

Confidential comments
Another innocuous-sounding change would allow elected officials, board members and others to keep secret “constituent case files,” defined as “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information or assistance.”

Translated, that means just about any message between a voter and an elected or appointed official could be kept out of public view, as long as it involved some sort of question (“How are you going to vote on this bill?) or request (“I’d like you to vote this way on that bill.”) And don’t forget, big-time donors and lobbyists can be constituents, too.

Like state lawmakers, council members often are inundated with comments about upcoming ordinances and agenda items. It can be illuminating to know who is seeking to influence decisions — and whether they’re residents or out-of-town activists spamming City Council with form letters, as has been the case in recent years when council debated controversial topics like the pit-bull ban and the sexual orientation and gender identity ordinance.

(Of course, if addresses can be redacted willy-nilly, the public would have no way of knowing who’s actually a constituent and who’s not.)

Under the proposed legislation, those messages, which make up the bulk of that green file folder in the clerk’s office, could be kept under lock and key. Are elected representatives listening to the people, or special interests? If these changes become law, you’ll just have to take their word for it.

Secret staff reports
The third exemption added in the House bill would ensure that just about anything else contained in my favorite green folder, along with a fair chunk of the city’s public agenda, could be hidden from view.

It would allow any email, report or document “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” to be kept secret if it contains “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

Translation: Any document suggesting how a potential bill, ordinance or other official decision should be handled — whether that advice comes from inside or outside government, from a constituent, staff member or an out-of-state donor — could be kept confidential.

Perversely, even citizen task force reports could be closed under this provision. Imagine, for example, if the Springfield school board had decided it didn’t like the recommendations made by the Community Task Force on Facilities and opted to bury the report, instead?

Beyond the obvious threat of special interests feeding biased information to decision-makers, staff reports also could be hidden from view. Does it matter to you whether county commissioners and City Utilities board members are receiving complete and accurate information? Should the public know if elected officials were warned against a course of action that ended up wasting taxpayer money?

Even responsible employees make mistakes, and a number have been caught over the years because an eagle-eyed citizen or journalist took the time to comb through a staff report. Without public access to those documents, inaccuracies — whether intentional or inadvertent — would go unscrutinized and uncorrected.

Still time to speak out
It’s not clear whether the House members who approved the bill understood the potential fallout (although at least one lawmaker sounded the alarm, according to news accounts.)

Schroer, the sponsor, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he didn’t know the bill would apply to local governments.

“That’s not something that was brought to my attention,” Schroer said, according to the newspaper. “That’s not something that I thought it did. And, frankly, I don’t know if it’s going to or not. That wasn’t the intention of it.”

Schroer’s goal, according to the Post-Dispatch, was “to protect constituents from having their political beliefs or personal matters aired in public.”

An alternate theory I heard in the Capitol last week was that the move was prompted at least in part by legislators’ annoyance at a broadly worded Sunshine request seeking legislative emails that a Kansas City Star reporter filed soon after Clean Missouri became law. I have no special insight into the accuracy of either explanation.

However much thought did or did not go into the House bill, and whatever the motivation for it, the detrimental effects on government transparency and accountability are considerably more clear.

Fortunately, there’s still time to make your thoughts known.

Leaders in the Missouri Senate have indicated they’ll edit the bill when it comes to them, a move supported by the bill’s sponsor in the House.

Senators Lincoln Hough and Eric Burlison are the two Springfield-area officials in that chamber. Contact information for their offices can be found at www.senate.mo.gov.

To look up your representative in the House, go to www.house.mo.gov.

If you’d like to take a look at the proposed bill yourself, you can find the current text of House Bill 445 online on the House site, as well. The Sunshine Law changes begin on Page 17.

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Missouri House bill, as posed, would close amendment’s openness

Originally posted by the Joplin Globe on February 9, 2019

Despite Missourians’ wishes to subject state lawmakers to the open-records law, the House has moved to curtail the Sunshine Law after a weeklong debate pitting government transparency against personal privacy.

The House on Thursday passed Bill 445, an ethics bill that would place a lobbyist gift limit on local elected officials and also ban the use of message-destroying apps such as Confide. The Republican-sponsored legislation is intended to apply the provisions of constitutional Amendment 1 to local government to keep everyone operating under the same standards.

Amendment 1, passed by two-thirds of the vote in November, also subjects lawmakers to the state’s open-records law. After its passage, legislators began expressing concerns that communications and information from constituents would be put at risk because lawmakers can’t apply exemptions that already exist in the law.

It’s led to new exemptions being proposed for the Sunshine Law by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, in House Bill 445. During floor debate Thursday, Schroer, an attorney, said he began researching the issue after the passage of Amendment 1 and believes that the existing exemptions can’t be applied by the Legislature.

“This doesn’t allow us the same rights, protections and carve-outs to protect our constituents like other agencies in the state,” Schroer said. “Morally, we have a right and duty to do what’s right by our people.”

Schroer is referring to things such as Social Security numbers, addresses and phone numbers. The Sunshine Law prohibits the release of Social Security numbers by state agencies, and there is debate as to whether the Legislature is a covered “state entity.”

House Bill 445 would close records “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” that consist of “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

Sean Nicholson, spokesman for Clean Missouri, the group backing Amendment 1, said the language that Schroer put in the bill is too broad. “Public governmental body” would include city councils, school boards, county commissions, the General Assembly and state agencies.

“If passed, this is going to keep a whole lot of records secret,” Nicholson said. “It’s troubling. If there are legitimate concerns about constituent privacy, lawmakers didn’t seem to have them until the law applied to them.”

Jean Maneke, lawyer for the Missouri Press Association, agrees.

“This move was a mistake,” Maneke said. “It would close every bit of correspondence of a school board member, city council member, the governor, etc., and those are records that have never been closed.”

Maneke also disagrees with Schroer’s assessment on the Legislature not being able to redact information or refuse to give information.

“Prior to Clean Missouri, I believe that each individual legislator was a state entity created by the Constitution, but there’s never been a court case to challenge the assertion that they weren’t,” Maneke said. “All other state offices have believed that their correspondence was subject to the Sunshine Law, so I don’t see why Clean Missouri is such a dramatic change for the Legislature.”

Opponents of Clean Missouri frequently have commented that voters were duped or didn’t know what they were voting on and also complained that the campaign was funded largely by out-of-state donors. The group received nearly 3,000 donations from people or groups in California and 1,500 donations from people or groups in New York, compared with 1,200 from Missouri groups and individuals in 2018.

However, the group collected the most money from people or groups in Missouri, totaling more than $700,000 in 2018.

“We ran a two-year campaign and collected more than 240,000 signatures,” Nicholson said. “The language was clear and straightforward in the summary, and we ran a clean campaign.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, indicated a willingness to revise the language as the bill moves through the Senate. He said cutting out access to records wasn’t the intent.

“I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat,” Dogan said. “But I think the other parts of it are really essential.”

Local support

All six Joplin-area House members voted in favor of the bill, which will now move to the Senate. Those who spoke to the Globe said they receive personal information on a near daily basis.

Sen. Bill White said he can’t comment on the specific bill without seeing it first, but generally, he is interested in protecting the privacy of constituents.

“We help people who have medical problems, financial crises, those sorts of issues, and they send us information pertaining to that, which shouldn’t be discoverable,” White said. “You’d nearly have to black out entire documents to ensure their private information isn’t released.”

Rep. Bob Bromley, R-Carl Junction, said he expects the bill to be revised.

“This bill is a long way from going through,” Bromley said, “but the intent here is to guarantee that our constituents’ information doesn’t get out.”

Rep. Lane Roberts said he was initially concerned that the bill’s lobbyist gift restriction would burden local officials who often serve without compensation. However, he said he voted in favor of the bill because it was pointed out that local boards are often three or four people making decisions about very large contracts.

“There is a very reasonable disproportionate amount of influence that each vote represents in a smaller jurisdiction that has to be taken into consideration,” Roberts said. “The same ethical standards that Missourians clearly want applied to their elected officials should apply equally to local officials.”

As for the Sunshine Law exemptions, Roberts said there isn’t a clear answer for that.

“I think Missourians fully expect that things are done openly and transparently, but on the other hand, I frequently receive information that is obviously very personal and not something that people would want released,” Roberts said. “The debate was about how to find a balance, and I wish there was clear line there, but there simply is not.”

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Missouri House votes to curtail state open records law after voters subject lawmakers to it

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 7, 2019

The Missouri House on Thursday approved a measure that would severely curtail the state’s open records law, though Senate leaders signaled that they would tighten the proposal’s sweeping provisions.

The measure generated heated debate this week, with Democrats and open-records advocates arguing that the broad exemptions outlined would gut the state’s Sunshine Law.

The changes would exempt from disclosure records of “advice, opinions and recommendations” that any member of a “public governmental body” receives or prepares.

Proponents said they were concerned about protecting their constituents’ privacy and contended they had nothing to hide.

The passage came three months after the statewide vote that approved Amendment 1, known as Clean Missouri, which subjects lawmakers to the Sunshine Law.

The changes exempt personal cellphone numbers, Social Security numbers and home addresses from disclosure, although Social Security numbers are already exempt from disclosure under the Sunshine Law. (There is some debate over whether the Social Security number exemption applies to legislative records.)

The most controversial changes, however, exempt records “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” that consist of “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

The measure would also exempt “constituent case files,” which include “any correspondence, written or electronic, between a member of a public governmental body and a constituent pertaining to a constituent’s request for information or assistance.”

The changes would affect local government officials, the Legislature and state officials.

Lawmakers added the Sunshine Law changes as an amendment to a bill that forbids most lobbyist gifts to local elected officials. The House also added language to that legislation that would ban elected officials from using software such as Confide, which deletes text messages after they’ve been read.

The vote on the underlying ethics legislation was 103 to 47, with several Republicans voting “no” and some Democrats casting “yes” votes.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the Senate would likely edit the House’s proposed Sunshine Law changes.

“This is a multistep process for a reason,” Rowden said. “They took the action they thought was necessary. We’re going to take a look at it.”

He said the Senate would take steps “we feel are necessary for the privacy of our constituents” but said lawmakers should not make the exemptions “too broad,” which could result in “upending what the voters told us last November.”

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, the sponsor of the underlying ethics bill, also said that he would push the Senate to revise the Sunshine provisions.

Gov. Mike Parson’s office said in a statement that the office was monitoring the legislation. As did Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office, which enforces the Sunshine Law.

“The Governor has demonstrated his commitment to an open and transparent government and is a longtime supporter of the Sunshine Law,” the governor’s office said. “Our office will continue to monitor all legislative proposals as they evolve through the legislative process.”

The legislation is House Bill 445.

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Missouri House passes bill on closing public records

Originally published by the Jefferson City News Tribune on February 7, 2019

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A bill that one lawmaker said would mean “the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history” passed the Missouri House on Thursday.

But the bill’s sponsor said he’ll work to tamp down the most contested part of the bill , which also imposes campaign contribution caps on local candidates and applies other ethics restrictions to local officeholders.

At issue is an amendment adopted on the House floor Monday that would keep records from being public if they are “received or prepared by or on behalf of a member of a public governmental body” and consist of “advice, opinions and recommendations in connection with the deliberative decision-making process of said body.”

Backers have said the intent is to shield correspondence between constituents and lawmakers, which recently became subject to the state’s Sunshine Law following voter approval of a constitutional amendment in November.

But Rep. Jon Carpenter said the bill passed by the House would allow almost all government records to be closed.

“Almost unquestionably if this bill passes, it’s going to be the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” the Kansas City Democrat said Thursday on the House floor.

Republican bill sponsor Rep. Shamed Dogan, of the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin, told concerned colleagues on the House floor Thursday that he’ll work to tone down the contested language as the measure makes its way through the state Senate.

The Senate appears likely to change the bill. Republican Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said passing legislation “is a multistep process for a reason.”

“We’re going to do our very best to make sure that the things that we feel are necessary for the privacy of our constituents and that sort of interaction is covered, without maybe making it too broad and really probably undoing or upending what the voters told us last November,” Rowden said.

The underlying bill would impose a $2,000 cap on campaign donations per local candidate — which would include candidates for mayor, city council and other municipal offices — each election.

Missouri voters in 2016 approved a cap on political donations to candidates for the Legislature and statewide offices at $2,600, then lowered the limit to $2,500 for senators and $2,000 for state representatives in November. But those limits didn’t apply to local candidates.

Dogan’s bill would also extend other ethics policies that lawmakers and statewide officials now face to local officials, including a $5-a-day lobbyist gift limit and a two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office.

“I’m happy when we get further through the process to compromise with the Senate to make this bill even better,” Dogan said, but “there is so much good in bringing light where it’s not shining on down to local governments.”

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Defying voters, Missouri House passes ‘radical undermining’ of open records law

Originally published by the Kansas City Star on February 7, 2019

The Missouri House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to disregard the wishes of voters and weaken the state’s open records law.

The measure, passed by a 103-to-47, vote not only keeps most of their records, including constituent emails, beyond public view, it extends those restrictions to city halls and schools boards across the state.

If signed into law in its current form, the bill would be “the most radical undermining of open records and transparency law in state history,” said Rep. Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City.

Missouri lawmakers have long exempted themselves from the state’s open records law. That appeared to change late last year, when voters passed the ballot question known as Clean Missouri with a 62 percent majority. It required that state legislators’ emails, calendars and other materials become available for public scrutiny.

The measure also overhauled the legislative redistricting process, lowered campaign contribution limits and eliminated nearly all lobbyist gifts. Those provisions are not impacted by Thursday’s vote.

The bill’s ultimate fate remains unclear. It now goes to the Senate, where it may be amended. Neither Gov. Mike Parson’s office nor state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who enforces the state’s record law, would offer a clear position.

“The Governor has demonstrated his commitment to an open and transparent government and is a longtime supporter of the sunshine law,” spokeswoman Kelli Jones said in an email earlier this week. “Our office will continue to monitor all legislative proposals as they evolve through the legislative process and will not commit to signing legislation until a final product is reached.”

Proponents of the bill said their principal concern was protecting constituent privacy.

“I totally believe and I totally support the Sunshine Act,” said Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon. “But when you now throw legislators into it, which have never been part of the Sunshine Act previously, you have a whole new set of rules.”

Government transparency advocates condemned the legislation.

“I’m stunned that the members of the Missouri legislature would think this is an issue that justifies making this significant of a change to the law that governs openness in the state,” said Jean Maneke, the attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

Under the bill, any records that shed light on deliberations or decision-making can be closed.

The hollowing out of the open records law started on the House floor Monday. Lawmakers agreed to allow the open records changes to be joined to another bill that extends versions of other Clean Missouri reforms to the local level, including the two-year ban on lobbying after leaving office and campaign contribution limits.

But the amended bill also extended the limitations on open records to local city councils, school boards, planning and zoning commissions and law enforcement.

“I think it is a huge reduction in the information the public is going to receive,” Maneke said. “And I don’t think it’s justified.”

Almost as soon as voters approved bringing Missouri lawmakers under the state’s sunshine law, legislators said they were concerned that confidential constituent information sent via email would be made public.

There are already limits to what is available through a public information request. The open records law provides more than 20 exceptions, including those that keep private most materials related to litigation, security, leasing or purchase of real estate, hiring and firing of personnel and identities of welfare recipients.

Though some lawmakers agreed that extending the Clean Missouri transparency rules to local elected officials was a good idea, the open records portion was a sticking point.

“This bill severely weakens the sunshine law,” Rep. Sarah Unsicker, a St. Louis Democrat, said.

She added later: “What are we trying to hide?”

Even the lawmaker tasked with shepherding the bill through the House said he was open to making changes.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said it was necessary to protect constituents privacy. He was less sure about cutting off sunlight to other records.

“I think that might have been an unintentional kind of overreach, so I’m a little bit concerned about that section and I would be willing to work on toning that language down somewhat,” Dogan said. “But I think the other parts of it are really essential.”

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Don’t turn out the light

Originally published by the Joplin Globe on February 7, 2019

Missouri residents voted to apply the Sunshine Law to the legislative process by passing Amendment 1 to the Missouri Constitution in November. A bill in the Missouri House that seeks to eclipse that sunshine must be defeated.

Representatives have already changed the House rules to exempt themselves from revealing “constituent case files” and records related to “caucus strategy.” Using House rules to defeat a constitutional amendment — by a voice vote so no individual legislator can be held to account — may not survive challenge by advocates of open government.

So now the devotees of darkness have moved to amend the Sunshine Law itself. Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, pinned this offending amendment to a bill related to lobbyist gift bans. The amended bill is headed to a vote. The change would conceal records “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.”

So pretty much any information the members of any governmental body want to keep hidden would be cloaked in secrecy, defeating the purpose of not just Amendment 1, but the Sunshine Law itself. A step into the open would become a retreat to shadow.

This editorial board supported Amendment 1 because it would make lawmakers subject to open records requirements. Changing the Sunshine Law to exempt lawmakers defeats the will of the electorate that approved Amendment 1 by a 2 to 1 margin.

Why are some legislators determined to obscure their actions? They cite privacy concerns and say deals are better made without the withering glare of public attention. Really? Limited redactions for privacy concerns are not the issue. The phrase “dark money” comes to mind. Many who give might face questions they are unwilling to answer if matters were revealed. Politicians don’t want influences known because they fear the money will shrivel in the light like the creeping rot it is. Sly bargains, dirty deals and sneaky tricks thrive in the shadows. To reveal them is to defeat them.

Can government be called responsive or lawmakers responsible if the will of the people is clearly known but turned aside? How can government be held accountable when constituents are kept in the dark? If the General Assembly tries to return to secretiveness, voters must hold them accountable. Votes on these matters should be by roll call. And if the votes aren’t recorded, all legislators should be held to account.

This newspaper will remind voters of the outcome of these votes in the next election, as should news outlets throughout the state.

This kind of sunblock is bad for us all.

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