Bill Makes Government Transparency Available to All Missourians
One of the biggest shortcomings of Missouri’s Sunshine Law is that—apart from local governments giving incomplete answers or overcharging for requested documents—it can be hard for the public to get any response to Sunshine Law requests. The two biggest reasons for this are (1) it’s hard to compel action from government, because the consequences for Sunshine violations are so weak; and (2) sometimes contact information for a local government can be outdated as staff churns, so requests are sent but never actually received.
That’s where House Bill 2873 (HB 2873) comes in.
HB 2873 would create permanent email accounts with the office of the Secretary of State (SOS) where Sunshine Law requests can be sent to local government at all times. For example, Battlefield, Mo., might be “email@example.com,” or Clay County might be “firstname.lastname@example.org.” The simplicity of the system is its advantage. Residents wouldn’t need to track down everchanging contact information for a city or school district, because these permanent email addresses will always work. Moreover, the Secretary of State would retain a copy of all requests to ensure compliance from local governments. Local governments wouldn’t be able to plausibly deny that a request was lost within the recesses of the Internet.
What if a local government already has an active Sunshine Law email address? The proposal contemplates this, too, allowing local governments to have requests sent to the new SOS accounts forwarded to an existing contact point for Sunshine Law requests. Alternatively, they could manage such requests within the state’s own email system like you or I might with our work email, or with web email. Importantly, as soon as an email request was received by the email address hosted by the Secretary of State, the three-day clock for a response required under the law would start ticking. However local government chose to field these requests, they couldn’t simply ignore them or act like the email was not received. Indeed, the state would know better.
Also included in the bill is a fix to something we encountered on a handful of occasions during our Show-Me Curricula project. Some school districts claimed that the schools they manage were not covered under the Sunshine Law. This is, of course, nonsense, but HB 2873 strengthens language around who precisely is subject to the state’s public transparency requirements, specifically around schools.
Along with the Parents’ Bill of Rights and mandatory transparency provisions dotting a handful of legislation, HB 2873 stands as one of the most important transparency ideas of the 2022 legislative session. The bill would act as a check against local government Sunshine Law failures. It leaves no flexibility for schools to deny transparency requests made under the law. I look forward to its hearing and hope that it will pass either on its own or as a prioritized amendment before the end of the session.