Two Approaches to Open Government
Public officials should accept the scrutiny that comes with open government. Some do, but many—including Missouri Governor Jay Nixon—do not. Last month, the Southeast Missourian’s editorial board ran commentary criticizing Nixon’s lack of transparency, and Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal blasted the governor on Twitter for his lack of communication during the protests in Ferguson. Nixon even won a satirical award for his notorious opaqueness, the Golden Padlock.
My own experience with Nixon’s office corroborates the reputation. Several months ago I submitted two public records requests for a contract held by an agency under the governor’s authority. I submitted one of these requests directly to the governor’s office; the other I sent to the agency bound to this contract. The agency responded promptly. In less than two weeks, a full copy of the contract appeared online, and the agency sent me a copy. The governor’s office was not so prompt. After the full contract had been publicly available for at least a month, I received a copy of the contract with blanks in place of key information, including dates and signatures.
These problems occur at the local level as well. A couple years ago, former Grundy County assessor Don Stotts refused to comply with a simple records request from David Stokes of the Show-Me Institute. While Stotts demanded over $9,000 to complete the request, dozens of other county assessors provided the same information at little or no charge. The dispute was finally resolved when the attorney general weighed in and Grundy County complied with the request.
I’ve handled plenty of open records requests, and I see two attitudes toward the Sunshine Law: one of compliance with the letter of the law and one of observance of the spirit of the law. When I send a sunshine request to some public agencies, the request is viewed as a burden. The people handling these requests seek to provide the bare minimum to avoid violating the law. They resent the scrutiny that can come from open government, and hence they follow the letter of the Sunshine Law while trying to avoid disclosing anything useful.
On the other hand, there are some public agencies that value feedback from the people they serve. When I send a request to an agency that shares this “spirit of the law” attitude to the Sunshine Law, I get a prompt and full response to my request from people who really try to be helpful. Agencies like this see open government as a public service and are happy to honor the public’s right to know how their public institutions operate.
Public officials, from the governor to employees of cities and counties, should keep in mind both the letter and the spirit of the Sunshine Law when interacting with the citizens they serve. Government provides a set of services on behalf of the community, and in a democracy, part of that service is transparency.
John Wright is a policy researcher at the Show-Me Institute.