EDITORIAL: State agencies must be open, follow Sunshine Law

The Joplin Globe, Mo.
·3 min read

Apr. 18—What will it take to get bureaucrats and officials to obey the law by treating public records as the public property they are? And when will they stop spending our money in an effort to thwart access to the documents for which they are accountable?

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the Missouri Attorney General's Office that has defended the department's misdeeds just had another lesson delivered by an appeals court at taxpayer expense. Is it too much to hope the agencies are taking notes and will eschew violations of Missouri's Sunshine Law henceforth?

Missouri is on the hook for nearly $138,000 in legal fees and expenses after an appeals court upheld a ruling that the state "knowingly and purposefully" violated the open records law, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

This case began back in 2016 when a genealogy research group requested state public birth and death records — fundamental records for family history researchers — beginning from 1910. Rather than follow the law, DHSS administrators set out to stymie the request, telling the group it would cost $1.49 million to fulfill — 35,000 employee hours at about $42 an hour. That would be 12 years, and you have to wonder why a $42-an-hour executive would have been doing a job best suited to a clerk. That figure was ridiculous, and when challenged, the health department offered a revised estimate of $5,000 — still double allowable costs. When the group's lawyer objected, DHSS rejected the request outright. The group, Reclaim the Records, sued and won, and DHSS was fined $12,000 and ordered to pay the group's legal fees.

In this case, the trial judge said the agency concocted a "secret plan to deny the Sunshine Law requests," forcing the lawsuit. The agency then tried to get lawmakers to amend state law, so it wouldn't have to cooperate. So much trouble to keep records from the public, and then officials and the attorney general compounded the agency's sins and wasted taxpayers' money by fighting, losing, then appealing a court battle to continue denying records the Sunshine Law requires the agency to provide.

We suspect part of the problem is that it is "only" taxpayer money that is being wasted. Some officials seem to value secrecy over openness, and they are willing to spend our money to keep us from our records.

Lawmakers should add teeth to the Sunshine Law, whereby officials have some real skin — personal penalties and fines, perhaps — in the game. Then the culture of obstruction and secrecy would give way to the openness required under the law.

As we have said before, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services behaves at times in ways that are neither transparent nor public-minded. It has a pattern of obstructing requests for information from the media and the public, of concealing information and throwing up roadblocks to the release of public records. We again call for a culture of openness under new public-minded and transparent leadership at the agency.

State agencies work for the taxpayers. Transparency should be their default position.