Will Rogers once said, “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.” And while government transparency is no joke, sometimes you have to laugh at how hard it can be to get information that should be readily available to the public. That continues to be the case with our “government checkbook” project, which my colleagues and I have been working on for several months now.
Let me re-set the stage. Missouri’s Sunshine Law (RSMo 610) requires municipalities and other public bodies to provide records of public interest, with some exceptions. It also states that if there is a charge billed to the requester, the municipality fulfilling the request should use employees of the public body that will result in the lowest amount of charges for search, research, and copying time.
Obtaining records of city expenses over the last five years is central to our project, and because there are so many cities in Missouri, it has been interesting to see the wide variety of reactions we have received from our uniform request (available below). As my colleague Scott Tuttle has noted before, responses to our inquiries have been uneven, with many cities promptly providing us the information we requested for reasonable fees, while others were less responsive and charged more.
For instance, the city of Festus took several days, waived their fees (as they are allowed to do) and gave a detailed Excel spreadsheet of their spending, which can be filtered and easily searched. Smithville took one day to fulfill the request and charged $20.00 for its records in PDF form. Meanwhile, Manchester—which to be fair is a city larger (population ~18,000) than either Festus (~12,000) or Smithville (~9,500)—told us it would cost approximately $1,200 and take up to four weeks for its staff to complete the response to my request.
Why the huge discrepancy in cost? The law does not specify the format in which information should be kept, or what a reasonable fee to charge is. To some degree this ambiguity makes sense, because the law has to be flexible enough to address situations and requests not considered when the statute was written. But should that gray area allow locales to drag their feet or (arguably) overcharge for documents that should be easy to access, while nonetheless complying with the law?
Although the responses from these three cities fulfilled statutory obligations, Festus and Smithville’s responses seemed to be most faithful not only to the law, but also to its spirit. As for Manchester’s response, you can judge for yourself.
It is puzzling with the technology available today why our cities and counties don’t simply publish their “checkbook” information online. There are plenty of free or low-cost platforms to keep these records up-to-date and accessible (look at what Manchester’s neighbor Ballwin is doing), and given the taxpayer interest and treasure involved, why should obstacles get in the way of accessing that information?
Click on the link below to see the request we sent out