Supporters Tell MO Lawmakers: Hands Off Amendment 1

Originally posted in Public News Service on March 12th, 2019.

Grassroots activists are in Jefferson City today to tell state lawmakers to keep the anti-gerrymandering “Clean Missouri” measure the way it is.

Amendment 1 passed with 62 percent of the vote last fall. But since the start of this year’s session, state lawmakers have been calling for changes. Among them is a proposal requiring a bipartisan commission to approve district redrawing, which would weaken the nonpartisan state demographer central to the amendment.

Kevin Grooms, a Sierra Club member in Kansas City who gathered signatures for Amendment 1, said the point of the measure was to give people a voice in elections.

“We’re just trying to make a district fair and actually make it a toss-up and not a foregone conclusion, and not something that a person’s vote in that district doesn’t matter,” Grooms said.

The amendment takes the redistricting process away from legislators and gives the power to redraw the political map after the 2020 Census to a nonpartisan demographer, whose work would be overseen by a citizen commission.

Grooms also is concerned about efforts to roll back rules in the amendment requiring legislative records and proceedings to be open to the public. Lawmakers in favor of the change say it’s necessary to protect personal information they receive from constituents.

Martha Lafata is a Sierra Club member in the Saint Louis area who also gathered signatures for Clean Missouri. She said lawmakers should respect the will of the voters.

“If people vote for something, you would think that that would be good enough, that they would leave things as is,” Lafata said. “But they just keep trying to, once again, change things in their favor.”

To combat the influence big-money donors have on elections, Amendment 1 would limit the donation dollars that legislators can take from any individual. It also requires former state lawmakers to wait two years after leaving office before they can become lobbyists.

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Clean Missouri prepared to fight back on legislative changes

Originally posted in The Missouri Times on March 7th, 2019.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The campaign that successfully advocated for sweeping changes to the Missouri General Assembly shows no sign of backing down as legislators look to alter the voter-approved constitutional amendment.

In the final days of bill filing for the 2019 regular session, five Republican lawmakers filed resolutions that would make significant changes to the new standard for redistricting approved on the November ballot.

Amendment 1, which was backed by the Clean Missouri campaign, limited lobbyists gifts, lowered campaign contribution limits, extended the transition time from public service to lobbying, and open lawmakers’ records to the public. One of the more notable, and contentious, provisions were changes to the redistricting requirements for the General Assembly.

It is those changes to how state legislative districts are drawn that lawmakers are looking to alter.

“Missourians just passed a new law to stop gerrymandering in November, by an almost two to one margin,” said Bob Johnson, a Lee’s Summit Republican who previously served in the General Assembly. “Their mandate from more than 1.4 million Missourians was clear: fair and competitive maps.”

Now in the Missouri Constitution is the requirement that when the newly-created nonpartisan state demographer draws districts, fairness and competitiveness be the leading factor to boundaries.

Five measures — Sen. Bill Eigel’s SJR 23, Sen. Dave Schatz’s SJR 29, Rep. Phil Christofanelli’s HJR 46, Rep. Curtis Trent’s HJR 47, and Rep. Jeff Pogue’s SJR 57 — filed in the General Assembly would change that. All five resolutions would go to a statewide vote if they get approval from the General Assembly.

The different proposals filed would change the priority order for drawing districts. While the proposals have various factors at the top of their lists, they all move fairness and competitiveness to the bottom or repeal the provisions altogether.

The Eigel and Schatz proposals put population as the priority with contiguous territory following. Partisan fairness and competitiveness are listed as the last criteria for both. Trent’s resolution has equal population, contiguity of territory, and compactness as the top three priorities, respectively. All other criteria under the Missouri Constitution is relegated to sixth out of six in priority.

Pogue’s resolution would completely repeal the entirety of the changes approved by voters in November. Christofanelli’s proposal would repeal the redistricting processes involving the nonpartisan state demographer.

Supporters of Amendment 1 are alleging that the proposals would “undermine” the voters’ will and “gut” the mandate.

“These new proposals are designed by incumbent politicians to eliminate the rules voters just added to the state constitution to require fair legislative district maps,” said Nancy Miller, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis.

The campaign that backed Amendment 1 is prepared to defend the standards approved by an overwhelming margin of voters.

Sean Nicholson, with Clean Missouri, said that campaign will fight against any attempt to overturn the voters’ will and that the voters themselves are prepared to defend their decision.

In February, Eddie Greim, a Kansas City lawyer with expertise in redistricting, told the Missouri Times that the standards passed in November make the Show-Me State is a bit of a “laboratory” experiment.

The model, which is currently in the Missouri Constitution, to determine what constitutes fair and competitive districts has never actually been used before, according to Greim. He noted that any nonpartisan fairness model essential designates that a political party has a right to a specific number of legislative seat.

Greim also said that by making political fairness the top priority over compactness or contiguity it opens up the possibility of odd-looking districts that smash together vastly different communities.

 

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Bipartisan group condemns politicians’ new plans for overturning will of voters

Good government groups joined Missourians from both parties today in condemning a batch of proposed amendments introduced in the Missouri General Assembly that would roll back redistricting reforms passed overwhelmingly by Missouri voters in 2018.

A small group of Jefferson City politicians introduced a batch of new proposals in the final days of the legislative filing period for 2019, each of which would allow lobbyists and political insiders to draw gerrymandered districts in future state legislative plans.

Five different joint resolutions — SJR 23, SJR 29, HJR46, HJR47, and HJR57 — were filed last week. All five proposals would:

  • flout the will of 1.4 million Missouri voters who supported fair and competitive maps;
    allow for gerrymandered districts that protect incumbent politicians, and
  • gut the rules in the state constitution that require fair maps.
  • None have been referred to committee or scheduled for a hearing at this time.

“Legislators should respect the people of Missouri who voted overwhelmingly to clean up Missouri politics,” says Nancy Miller, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Metro St. Louis. “These new proposals are designed by incumbent politicians to eliminate the rules voters just added to the state constitution to require fair legislative district maps.”

“Missourians just passed a new law to stop gerrymandering in November, by an almost two to one margin,” said Bob Johnson, a Lee’s Summit Republican who previously served in the General Assembly. “Their mandate from more than 1.4 million Missourians was clear: fair and competitive maps.”

“We can’t let a few politicians and lobbyists overturn the will of the people,” said Rod Chapel, president of Missouri State Conference of the NAACP. “Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and Missourians from all walks of life supported Amendment 1 because it got us started cleaning up Missouri politics, and gives everyday citizens more of a voice in our state government.”

In November 2018, Missourians overwhelmingly supported a new, fair redistricting process that took away the influence of lobbyists and insiders when crafting new maps. In its place, 1,469,093 voters enacted a new system with checks and balances to create districts where candidates will actually have to earn their votes, and to ensure that no political party gets an unfair advantage in any new maps.

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EDITORIAL: Diluting the Sunshine Law undermines transparency

Originally posted in The Columbia Missourian on February 26th, 2019.

Thus far, 2019 hasn’t been a great legislative year for open records and transparency in government.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the Sunshine Law is a proposed change that would make communication between public officials and their constituents private. House Bill 445 is a reaction to the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment, passed by voters last November.

Part of that bill, which is intended to hold local government to the same standards as the state, includes an amendment that closes access to any correspondence between a government official and a constituent.

“I just want to be sure that my constituents feel comfortable in contacting me and that I can keep their information private,” Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, recently told the Columbia Missourian.

The sweeping amendment, however, undermines transparency and potentially limits a wide range of public information about your government.

Those voting for the bill included Republican Brenda Shields, who represents the 11th House District in St. Joseph. Rep. Bill Falkner, R-St. Joseph, voted against the measure. Rep. Sheila Solon, R-St. Joseph, was absent for the vote.

Most newspapers and media companies are uncomfortable with narrowing or restricting the Missouri Sunshine Law. We’re no different. We believe our state’s open records law holds public officials accountable.

Another key reason we’re concerned about this bill is that the people of Missouri have spoken. Voters overwhelmingly passed the Clean Missouri Amendment. It appears those who live in our state want more accountability and transparency in government, whether the legislature agrees or not.

Another attack on open records comes from bills in both the House and Senate on publishing public notices. Currently, city, county and state governments are required to publish certain information in newspapers. For instance, Buchanan County Clerk Mary Baack-Garvey is required to post a complete sample ballot in advance of every election.

One proposed bill would allow Baack-Garvey to simply put up a notice on the county clerk’s website.

There are some troublesome issues with this. First, not every citizen has a computer, smartphone or tablet. Second, not every Missourian has access to the internet, especially in rural counties and communities where that service might be limited.

Currently all the proposals that would allow electronic publication of required notices are languishing in committees. Should they surface, Falkner recently told the News-Press that he would vote against such measures.

Let’s urge Shields, Solon and the rest of our Northwest Missouri representatives do the same.

Copyright St. Joseph News-Press. Reprinted with permission.

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Clean Missouri supporters unhappy with bills seeking to close records

Originally posted in the Jefferson City News Tribune on February 24th, 2019.

After Missouri voters last November overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1 to the Constitution, known as the Clean Missouri proposal, supporters have been upset with lawmakers who have proposed, or voted for, several bills and rule changes this legislative session that aim to undo some of the new amendment’s requirements.

And last week’s committee approval of Sen. Ed Emery’s Senate Bill 132 is just the latest point of unhappiness.

“It’s happening again,” Sean Soendker Nicholson said in an email last Wednesday, a day after the Senate’s Government Reform Committee recommended the full Senate debate and pass the bill.

“A Missouri Senate committee just passed a new bill designed to allow legislators to dodge the Sunshine Law, even though we just passed Amendment 1 barely three months ago,” Nicholson wrote.

Amendment 1 received 1,469,093 “yes” votes Nov. 6, or 62.021 percent of the total 2,368,706 votes cast, to 899,613 “no” votes, or 37.979 percent.

For many people, that’s considered a popular mandate.

And, Emery told the News Tribune last week, he’s not trying to ignore the people’s will.

“We’re trying to absolutely preserve that,” he explained. “We all have oaths of office that we take and voters to answer to.

“We’re all up there for the same purpose,” to represent their constituents’ interests as best as they can.

The main issue involves records that, before voters passed the Clean Missouri amendment, most lawmakers considered to be closed to the public.

Many felt that position was supported by a 2016 state appeals court ruling that Missouri’s Constitution expressly provides the House and Senate “may determine the rules of (their) own proceedings.”

But the Clean Missouri amendment included a requirement that legislative records and proceedings be open to the public under the Sunshine Law.

It’s that provision that, Nicholson told the News Tribune on Saturday, Emery’s bill seeks to change.

“Emery’s bill violates the clear language of the state Constitution,” he explained. “The General Assembly is required to follow the same generally applicable open records laws that are set for city councils, mayors, the governor.

“The law of the land right now (is): ‘Legislative records shall be public records and subject to generally applicable state laws governing public access to public records, including the Sunshine Law.’

“Any attempt to carve out the General Assembly from open records laws violates this clear mandate from voters.”

Emery said he only wants to protect communications with constituents — that often are very personal in nature, involving problems that constituents think the lawmaker can help resolve but wouldn’t want the general public to know about — and communications among lawmakers that are focused on the actual legislative process.

“Originally, (they) would have been confidential,” Emery said.

The Sunshine Law, found in Chapter 610 of Missouri’s Revised Statutes, includes 24 different exemptions to the basic concept of open records.

As modified by the committee, Emery’s bill would add a 25th exemption, that: “Any record retained by the office of a member of the general assembly that is related to a constituent of the member” would be a closed record under the law.

The proposed law explains: “As used in this subdivision, ‘constituent’ shall mean any person who is a resident of the legislative district of the member, any person who owns real property within the legislative district of the member, or any person who owns an interest in, or is an employee of, a business entity operating within the legislative district of the member.”

Emery said he’s trying to keep the Sunshine Law limitations very narrow.

Nicholson strongly disagreed, arguing that the definition of “constituent” is too broad.

“Under this framework,” he said, “communications to or from any employee of any business that happens to have a storefront in a district becomes secret.

“It’s not hard to imagine ways this would be abused.”

At a Thursday afternoon news conference, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, told reporters: “We have always been really concerned (about) the constituent information. We want to make sure that constituent interaction is protected.

“Beyond that, we’ve got to get it right. I think we have to be very diligent and very mindful of how we do what we do.”

But he believes a majority of the Senate’s Republican members think “something needs to be done” to modify what voters approved in Amendment 1.

Emery told the News Tribune he understands the Clean Missouri amendment clearly targeted “the outside influences” on the legislative process, and his proposed law change clearly doesn’t include “a person who is registered as a lobbyist or a lobbyist principal, as such terms are defined in (state law), regardless of whether such person otherwise meets the definition of ‘constituent.'”

Under that language, a number of Jefferson City residents who earn their living as lobbyists would have all of their communications with their representative, Dave Griffith or Rudy Veit, depending on where they live, and Sen. Mike Bernskoetter open to a public or media inquiry under the Sunshine Law — even if that communication was about a personal or family issue.

Emery’s bill also would add a 26th exemption to open records: “Any record retained in the office of a member of the general assembly, an employee of either house of the general assembly, or an employee of a caucus of either the majority or minority party of either house that contains information regarding proposed legislation or the legislative process — however, nothing in this subdivision shall allow the closure of a record that has been offered in a public meeting of a house of the general assembly, or any committee thereof.”

Emery said lawmakers’ strategy discussions, including proposals to amend or rewrite bills, shouldn’t become public until they actually are introduced in either the House or the Senate.

He argued neither the Republican or Democratic caucuses, for example, want the “other” side to know what their strategies are while negotiations are underway involving proposed laws or constitutional amendments.

Rowden said: “The work product discussion is a broader one — but we’ve got to get it right.”

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, added: “For the most part, what voters want to see and understand is that, if there is anything nefarious going on, and making that information available — I don’t think anybody has a problem with producing and seeing that.”

Senate Minority Leader Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, said the voters “already have spoken I think it’s up to us to work within the guidelines and parameters of what (voters) have said, and to move forward.”

Nicholson said: “Any attempt to carve out the General Assembly from open records laws violates this clear mandate from voters.

“Why can’t the General Assembly just start following the Sunshine Laws that everyone else has to follow?”

Rowden, who manages when bills are brought up for debate, said last week he didn’t know when Emery’s bill would be debated.

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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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