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State agencies poor in complying with Missouri's sunshine law, audit finds

By The Associated Press

04.17.01

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State agencies aren't much better than local governments in complying with the Missouri sunshine law, an audit released today found.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill said almost half of state government bodies surveyed did not adequately respond to requests from her office, disguised as letters from citizens, for copies of public records.

That percentage mirrors the findings of a 1999 audit of local government bodies' compliance with the open-records law.

"State agencies, boards and commissions did marginally better than political subdivisions in knowing that they should comply," McCaskill said in an interview. "The problem is there's still a failure to understand the law's time requirement ... but we did not see too many flat refusals."

In the 1999 audit, 47.6% of local governments surveyed did not know about the law or denied requests for improper reasons.

While nearly all state agencies knew about their duties under the law, 87 of the 195 surveyed — nearly 45% — did not respond within three days as required, McCaskill said.

The latest audit reviewed state agencies, boards and commissions, while the 1999 inspection looked at 214 local government bodies, including rural water and library districts, city councils and village boards.

McCaskill's report was being released on the same day a Senate panel was to consider legislation raising the penalties for violations of the sunshine law.

In both the 1999 and this most recent audit, McCaskill's office sent letters to government bodies requesting copies of the minutes of public meetings. The letters were disguised to appear as if citizens sent them.

Failing state agencies said they could not comply because the information could not be located, because the request was not given to the proper individual, or because the agency had to know why the information was needed, the audit said.

Some agencies said they never received the request, but McCaskill said the letters required signatures proving their arrival.

McCaskill said none of those reasons exonerated an agency from complying with the law.

Someone's reason for requesting the information is "irrelevant — It's (the people's) record," McCaskill said of the three agencies that asked for explanations of why the request was made. The record "doesn't belong to the people who are keeping it," she said.

Another section of the sunshine law allows agencies to charge "fair" fees for document searches and to recoup the cost of making copies.

But the audit also found that 54% of the surveyed agencies charged fees higher than the cost of copying the records. Of those, 92% provided no explanation for the high charges. Overall, state government offers no consistent charge for duplicating records, the audit said.

McCaskill said the Department of Conservation charged $1 per page plus a flat $10 fee per request without providing documentation that the charge is fair. In addition, the audit says the department charges a minimum of $60 for three hours of research.

"That $60 prices someone out of information in state government," McCaskill said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Financial and Governmental Organizations, Veteran's Affairs and Elections Committee was to hear testimony today on House Bill 237, which would quintuple the fines government bodies would face for violations. Currently, violators can face fines of up to $500.

But the measure, which has already cleared the House, would exempt public hospitals from the law under certain conditions.

McCaskill was not scheduled to appear at the hearing, but some members of her staff were to testify, she said.

She says her staff is pushing to amend the bill to eliminate research fees on law requests and to cap the copying fees that agencies charge.

Related

State audit: Public records often more closed than open in Washington
Survey by 26 news organizations finds Washington state residents can’t be certain that local government will give them information to which they’re entitled.  10.22.01

Arizona police often wary of open-records requests
In recent statewide survey, law enforcement agencies refused nearly half the time to hand over public documents.  01.22.02

Some Mississippi sheriffs keep public records under lock and key
Survey finds many sheriffs' departments are either ignorant of state's 1983 open-records law or have chosen to ignore it.  01.02.02

Prospects grim for open access to state's public records
Analysis Sept. 11 attacks prompt governor to call for new exemption; newspaper advocate hopes to hold the line on current law.  01.19.02

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