Taking the Bad With the Good: A Recap
It’s been a mixed bag.
Some county clerks have been efficient and forthcoming, while some have been obstructionist or even incompetent. But I have been able to collect 97 sets of school district voting records from Missouri’s 114 counties (plus the city of St. Louis) using Missouri’s Sunshine Law. And I’m not done yet.
I will continue to try to collect the remaining counties’ records, but in the meantime, I wanted to give Missourians a recap of my dealings with their public officials.
Let’s start with a few of the most surprising cases of — I’ll call it what it is — overcharging. St. Charles County quoted me a cost of $274.20 to collect only 4 years’ worth of data. Granted, the years I asked for were 2000 to 2003, so it’s likely they were not easily accessible by computer, but that is not a unique problem. Despite facing the same situation, 63 counties were able to supply their records at no charge.
Harrison County sent me this succinct response:
For $41.37 an hour, we would be more than happy to get your request. Please advise me of your decision. This information is located in the storage of our basement. It will take SEVERAL HOURS to retrieve this information.
There wasn’t a lot there, but it said everything.
Barton County was a whole different story. The clerk there charged exactly the maximum I had specified in my request. When I asked her to break down the charges in an invoice so that I could see how she had arrived at the charge, she said she would fax one to me. A week later, she said she had been too busy. When I asked her when I could expect the information, she said she just didn’t know. I have yet to receive an invoice.
Lincoln County actually sent the requested records, but the clerk asked for $85. When I asked her to break down the charges, she did not respond. A week later when I called, she told me she had undercharged me and that if she were forced to break down the charges, the cost would go up. I requested an accurate accounting of the charges. I have yet to receive an invoice.
It would be unfair to mention only those county clerks who were less than helpful. Although I have had to call nearly every county to follow up on records, either to get them at all or to complete them when data was missing, some counties went above and beyond my expectations.
Henry County compiled the most organized and thorough records. I did have to call, because of missing numbers in 2004, but the clerk was friendly, efficient, and open. There are no longer any gaps in the records.
Christian and Ozark counties were similarly helpful. Christian County charged a modest amount, but the records were exemplary. Ozark County supplied the records at no charge and then worked extensively with me over the phone to get the information I wanted.
I have received complete information from Audrain, Camden, Cape Girardeau, Clay, Dent, Douglas, Linn, Platte, Randolph, St. Francois, and St. Louis counties (I didn’t file a request for the latter, because the information is available online). But keep in mind that the majority of those required additional phone calls to complete.
All in all, it’s been a mixed bag. I have had more positive experiences than negative ones. But those cases in which clerks were obstructionist were particularly egregious. The bottom line? About 10 percent of Missouri’s county clerks have made it difficult. At face value, this doesn’t sound like a lot, but county clerks are beholden to the public.
If even one clerk acts to obstruct a records request, that is one too many.