Tuesday, November 15, 2016
State Audit: Many local government units not complying with Sunshine Law
Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway says government must do better when it comes to meeting its obligations to transparency with the public. A newly-released report on compliance with the state's open records laws shows that only 30% of local governments fully complied with laws specifically designed to keep government accessible to its citizens.
"My office regularly receives complaints related to access of public information, which is exactly what the Sunshine Law is designed to address," Auditor Galloway said. "For this report, we sent public records requests to hundreds of local governments across the state. The results were extremely disappointing and demonstrate that we have a long way to go in improving transparency and citizen access to information in Missouri government."
Auditor Galloway and her staff sent open records request letters to more than 300 local government entities in every region of the state. The request was fairly simple - to provide a copy of minutes for the last meeting held in 2015, along with the notice and agenda for that meeting, and several other basic pieces of information. The letters were not sent on official office letterhead in order to provide a clearer picture of what the average citizen experiences when requesting information from government. Of those who received a request, 37% failed to acknowledge it or respond within the 3-day time period required by law. Some of those eventually provided information after the deadline, but 16% did not respond at all.
Four local governments took it a step further and refused to respond unless the requestor provided additional information or explained what the information would be used for, which is a violation of the Sunshine Law.
The Sunshine Law does allow governments to charge fees for research and copying records. In this case, the requested records were fairly simple, and recent - dating back to less than a year, so any costs should have been minimal. Some local governments still requested unreasonably high dollar amounts to provide these records - more than $80 in one example.
The report also includes information on whether the meeting documents provided by local governments meet standards set in law, and which entities included information about their designated custodian of records and recording policy, as requested in the initial letter.
This report includes results from 309 local government entities, including counties, cities, school districts, and a variety of special taxing districts from across the state. To see how local governments in your area fared, see the complete report online here. The report includes information on local governments surveyed for the report and levels of compliance. Appendix G includes all referenced entities, sorted by county.